2 Kings 18:17–37 (NIV)✞: Sennacherib Threatens Jerusalem
In the last passage we read about the beginning of the reign of Hezekiah, including his rebellion against the Assyrians. When we left off they Assyrians had captured Judah’s fortified cities and he’d agreed to pay them tribute per their demands. (I never mentioned his name, but the king of Assyria at the time was Sennacherib).
In this passage we find out that the tribute wasn’t enough – the Assyrians decide to continue on and conquer Judah anyway! The Assyrian army marches right up to Jerusalem and provide the following message to the people:
19 The field commander said to them, “Tell Hezekiah:
“‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? 20 You say you have the counsel and the might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? 21 Look, I know you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him. 22 But if you say to me, “We are depending on the LORD our God”—isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, “You must worship before this altar in Jerusalem”?
23 “‘Come now, make a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses—if you can put riders on them! 24 How can you repulse one officer of the least of my master’s officials, even though you are depending on Egypt for chariots and horsemen? 25 Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the LORD? The LORD himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.’”
This speech makes a number of errors, of course:
- I’m not sure if this first one is an error or if the author(s) of Kings just didn’t mention it, but the field commander is assuming Hezekiah is depending on Egypt, which the text hasn’t mentioned.
- He’s right that Hezekiah is depending on the LORD but he’s got some bad information on the high places and altars: the high places and altars that Hezekiah had removed were for other gods, not for the God. I’m not surprised at all, however, that this mistake was made: it would be logical for a person of the time to assume that more altars and high places would be better than fewer. The way God had structured worship of Him for His people was different from how other gods were worshipped.
- Obviously the LORD didn’t actually command the Assyrians to attack Judah. In fact, I wouldn’t even call this an error; I’ll call it a lie, instead.
That being said, a couple of the leaders of Judah are nervous about all of this talk from the Assyrians; they ask the field commander to continue in Aramaic (the language most used in Assyria) instead of Hebrew (the language spoken by the people of Judah), so that the majority of the people won’t understand, but the field commander says he’s purposely been speaking in Hebrew because he wants the people to hear. He wants them to hear that they’re going to be besieged, and have to “eat their own excrement and drink their own urine” (v. 27✞).
He then continues on with his speech, urging the people not to let Hezekiah convince them to trust the LORD; if they make peace with the Assyrians they can live in peace until such time as they are deported, and go to a wonderful land with abundant food.
And then he says something which, from his perspective, is very reasonable:
“Do not listen to Hezekiah, for he is misleading you when he says, ‘The LORD will deliver us.’ 33 Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? 35 Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”
And I mean… he’s right that Assyria has conquered a bunch of nations, and none of their gods was ever able to prevent it. From a human perspective, I don’t blame him for assuming the LORD would just be one more “god” that Assyria could ignore. The reader happens to know better, of course, that none of the “gods” of the other nations were real whereas the LORD is.
The passage ends with mention that the people give no answer (because they were instructed not to),and those same leaders who’d complained about the languages going in to tell Hezekiah all that the Assyrian field commander had said.
Not much happens in this passage; it’s just the Assyrian field commander delivering a message to the king (and people of Judah). We don’t even get Hezekiah’s response – that won’t come until the next passage!
The passage has always fascinated me, however, because of the insightful approach to psychological warfare the Assyrians are taking. “Are you really going to depend on Egypt for help? Haven’t you seen how they let down all those other nations? Are you really going to depend on your god? Haven’t you seen that no other god has ever been able to protect its people from us? Why don’t you just give up now and we’ll deport you to a nice, lush land, so we don’t have to kill you?”
In fact, it’s not just psychological warfare, it’s also quite reasonable! It’s true that Egypt isn’t going to be able to help (if Judah was even counting on Egypt, which I’m still not sure about); it’s true that no other nation’s god has been able to save them; it’s also true that Assyria is the most powerful nation in the known world and little Judah is nothing in front of them. So everything that the Assyrian field commander says to the people of Judah is reasonable – if, that is, the LORD is the same as any other god, which we know He is not. That changes the equation entirely.
If you don’t believe that God is who He says He is, then any response from Hezekiah other than surrender is stupid, but if you believe that God is who He says He is then trusting Him is always the right move.