Opening thought: Have you ever received an intimidating letter? Maybe from the IRS? Or a creditor? Or an attorney? People in ministry sometimes receive intimidating anonymous letters. King Hezekiah received both an intimidating visit and letter in Isaiah 36-37, and his response shows us how intimidators work and how to deal with intimidation.
Pray and Read: Isaiah 36-37
Contextual Notes: For the first time since we began our study of Isaiah, we come to a section that is not poetry. It is prose, and not only that, it is history, important current events for Isaiah’s time which point to future events of great import for our world. But this historical interlude is not an intrusion. It serves as a pivot on which the book turns. Israel has rejected the Lord who can deliver them, despite this evidence of His power. Yet the Lord is by nature the Savior of his people. The day will come when the Lord will save Israel despite its current unbelief. God guarantees the future, and Isaiah 36-39 is the historical proof that God can guarantee it. He proves faithful here, and he will be faithful in the future.
This story is found as well in 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32:1-24. The year is 701 B.C. Sennacharib has devastated the ring of fortresses Hezekiah had built along the borders and threatens to advance on Jerusalem. His field commander calls on Hezekiah to surrender and shouts his message loudly in Hebrew to demoralize Jerusalem’s defenders. In his demand for surrender, he makes a foolish mistake and ridicules the Lord. King Hezekiah asks the Lord to defend his honor. Isaiah the prophet responds by telling Hezekiah that God will drive Sennacherib away and not so much as a single arrow will be shot into Jerusalem (37:33). The key verse here is 37:20, where Hezekiah asks the Lord to deliver them so that all the kingdoms on earth will know that the Lord alone is Lord. Our God is a missionary God.
Key Truth: Isaiah wrote Isaiah 36-37 to teach Israel to be careful how you talk about the Lord but to be bold in what you say to the Lord.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about handling intimidation.
- Be careful in what you say about Him: how intimidators work (Isaiah 36).
- Be bold in what you say to Him: how to respond to intimidation (Isaiah 37).
Exposition: Note well,
1. BE CAREFUL IN WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT HIM: HOW INTIMIDATORS WORK (Isaiah 36)
a. 36:1-3 – Assyria was the greatest military power in that day. Its army had a fearsome reputation for cruelty. As Isaiah had predicted (8:7-8; 10:24), the Assyrians invaded Judah and advanced on Jerusalem. King Sennacherib of Assyria sent his representatives to demand surrender of Jerusalem (36:1-2). Isaiah does not mention the tribute Hezekiah had paid to Sennacherib nor the group of high officials sent on a diplomatic mission to Judah’s capital (2 Kings 18:14-17). Isaiah highlights the theological elements of the Rabshakeh (literally, chief cup bearer). Two of the officials who went out to meet the Assyrians were Eliakim and Shebna, two men whom Isaiah saw as examples of good and bad governance and types of Messiah and anti-Messiah (36:3; 22:15-25).
b. 36:4 – The Rabshekah, or field commander, standing in probably the same place where Isaiah addressed Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz (7:3), begins with a question, “On what are you basing this confidence of yours?” then outlines several sources of Jerusalem’s trust, attempting to refute each one of them. He first denounces the Judah-Egypt alliance as useless (36:6). Isaiah would completely agree (30:1-31:9). And Egypt indeed, did not respond when Assyria attacked Judah.
c. Second, he says the king of Judah cannot hope for help from the Lord because he removed all the objects of pagan worship from the Temple and destroyed the high places in Judah, insisting that the Temple was the only place to offer sacrifices (36:7; 2 Kings 18:4; 2 Chronicles 29; 31:1-2). From the Rabshekah’s perspective, the more altars you have the better. More altars means more sacrifices meaning more power and divine favor, and a better chance of winning the war. But he misunderstood completely. Isaiah said that what God considers important actually is holiness, justice, and doing right (1:11-17).
d. Third, the Rabshekah makes snide remarks about Judah’s military. Even if he gave Judah 2,000 horses to defend themselves, they would probably not have enough men who knew how to ride them, much less turn even one of the Assyrian officers in pitched battle (36:8-9). Isaiah had already said that Judah should not trust in their military numbers or resources to save them (31:1; 1 Samuel 17:45-47; 2 Chronicles 13:3-18; 20:1-24).
e. Fourth, the commander says it was actually the Lord who sent the Assyrians against Judah (36:10). Isaiah had certainly seen the judgment of God behind the Assyrian invasion, but he denounced them for going beyond their assignment in their bloodthirsty and proud conduct (10:5-15; Matthew 5:17-20).
f. Finally, the Rabshekah ignored the official Judean envoys and spoke directly to the people (36:11-13). He sought to discredit Hezekiah their king, who had been encouraging them to trust the Lord (36:14-15). His two-fold argument went this way. First, he promised the residents of Jerusalem an ideal situation if they surrender, parodying God’s description of the Promised Land (36:16-17; Exodus 3:17; Matthew 6:24-33), with echoes of the desire to return to Egypt (Exodus 16:3). Of course, who in their right mind would think deportation at the hand of a cruel nation would be pleasant and nice? His second argument is that the Lord, whom Hezekiah is following, is too weak to protect them (36:18-20). The gods of Syria and Israel could not overcome the Assyrians. Why should the God of Judah be any different? Here he crosses the line. Isaiah insisted that the Lord is the Creator and Sovereign over all things and nations (34:1).
g. 36:21 – Under Hezekiah’s orders, the people remained silent despite provocation. Note the maturity in the face of a loud-mouth Rabshekah from Assyria. Silence is a sign of wisdom and trust in God in the face of such arrogance (Exodus 14:13-14; Proverbs 17:28; Matthew 7:6). Despite the brave face, the envoys were upset and discouraged, who tear their clothes (36:22).
h. APPLICATION: The Rabhshekah gives us a lesson. One may have great intellect and strength. One may know strategy and can work to undermine their opponent, but arrogance and a proud heart the Lord will bring down. On the threat of a rumor that the Egyptians were coming, the boastful Rabshekah ran back to Lachish to his king and his safety.
i. His lie that the Lord had sent him was a manipulative attack designed to discourage the Jerusalemites. It did. Manipulation often ends in discouragement, and it often involves a lie.
j. The Rabshekah’s attack on the name and glory of God, his taking the name of the Lord in vain and assaulting the Lord’s power and sovereignty is a mark of great arrogance. We live in a world where men and women have decided that they know better than the Lord, where they can decide for themselves if they want to marry another man or another woman, where they can make their own rules and live in immorality, and it is no one’s business because they really believe there are in charge and no one can tell them what to do. There is an end prophesied for them.
k. Finally, this precious lesson: If only we would turn in repentance to our God, we may look for His help and deliverance for a new day, however we my have to suffer for past sin. God is always faithful, even when we have erred and strayed from his ways.
2. BE BOLD IN WHAT YOU SAY TO HIM: HOW TO RESPOND TO INTIMIDATION (Isaiah 37)
a. 37:1-5 – Hezekiah was just as disheartened. He not only tears his clothes, he puts on sackcloth. Despite the dejection, he demonstrates clear thinking and courage. He refuses to give up on his faith in the Lord, even though the situation was hopeless. Hezekiah goes straight to the Temple to pray and sends the religious authorities to Isaiah, including Shebna, one of Isaiah’s adversaries (22:15-19). Hezekiah asks Isaiah to pray for the remnant that still survives (37:3-5). His reference to a remnant suggests Hezekiah is paying attention to Isaiah’s teaching (1:9; 30:27-33).
b. APPLICATION: Note the humble submission of Hezekiah in contrast to the arrogant Rabshekah. Our response to the arrogant confrontation we might have, whether from a spiritual or physical enemy, is to respond with silence, and then in humility go to the Lord and lay the issue before him for his counsel and action.
c. 37:6-13 – Isaiah told them God will use a ‘certain report’ to send Sennacharib back home where he will die (36:6-7). That report was that a Cushite army was advancing on the Assyrians. Cushites were black Africans from south of Egypt and greatly feared (18:1-7). But Sennacharib refuses to abandon his plan to capture Jerusalem, and he sends a threatening letter to Hezekiah, treating the Lord as no different than the other gods whose land he has conquered (37:9-13).
d. 37:14-20 - Hezekiah heads back to the Temple to pray, laying that letter out before the Lord. Hezekiah’s prayer is theologically rich and demonstrates a deep familiarity with the Torah. He knows God is the Creator and sovereign (37:16; Genesis 1:1), that He is the only God (Exodus 20:1-3), that other deities are merely human inventions (37:19), and that the Lord (like a Man) can hear and see (37:17), and that it is the Lord’s glory to be worshiped by the nations (missions – 37:20).
e. 37:21-35 – Isaiah’s response mirrors that prayer, that the Lord is sovereign (37:22-24), the Creator of the splendors of nature that Sennacharib claims to have mastered (37:24-25). He planned history and gave Sennacharib his victories (37:26-27). Sennacharib is given a dose of reality. He is a creature among God’s creation, and he can lead him where he wants like an ox or donkey (37:28-29). Then Isaiah reassures Hezekiah that Jerusalem will not be captured and in a few years the city will resume its normal life (37:30-34). God will intervene not only for the glory of his name but also because Hezekiah has demonstrated himself as a worthy successor of David, and he remembers his promise to David (37:35; 1 Kings 2:2-4).
f. 37:35-38 – Not so much as an arrow shot would happen out of this threat. And an angel of the Lord strikes the Assyrians with a plague. Herodotus 2.141 says that the plague came with rats and mice, and that the mice devoured the quivers, bows, and shield handles. Sennacharib abandoned his plans to besiege Jerusalem and returns to his own country and is assassinated (37:36-38). The Scripture’s statement that Sennacharib returned to Nineveh is evidence of the inerrancy of the text, since he had moved the capital under his reign back to Nineveh from another city where his father had established the capital. This historical event gave much credibility to Isaiah’s later prophecies from chapters 40-66.
g. Walt Kaiser points out the contrast between the results of Hezekiah’s prayer and Sennacharib’s, whose god Nisroch was plainly unable, even in his own temple, to keep the Assyrian king from assassination by his own sons.
h. APPLICATION: Hezekiah’s prayer was soaked in the Word of God. Is yours? His prayer included his concern not just selfishly for his own safety, but for the glory and name of the Lord, for those other ethnicities and unreached peoples around to know the name of the Lord and honor him. Does your prayer reflect the missionary heart of God?