When the Problem is too Great for You
The expansion of the Assyrian Empire in the 700s BC was unlike anything that had happened in recent human history. The Assyrians had formed the first professional standing army the world had ever seen, and had begun to conquer and subjugate surrounding nations, incorporating them into the broader empire. Along with that, the Assyrians also began deporting and repopulating these conquered peoples, removing them from their land, heritage, and culture, wiping entire nations off the map forever. This happened to many nations including the northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BC.
The Assyrians spread across the known world like locusts, gobbling up and destroying every nation that came across their path. They were large and growing larger with each new acquisition. They were ruthless, violent, and determined to grow ever larger. And they had all but conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah save a few walled cities including Jerusalem.
Rabshakeh, the commander of Assyrian forces, had placed a siege around Jerusalem, and speaks to the Hebrews manning her walls in their own language. His speech is recorded in 2 Kings 18 and Isaiah 36. Later references will come from Isaiah in this article. Rabshakeh, acting as the mouthpiece of King Sennacherib offers several reasons for the defenders of Jerusalem to surrender and join the Assyrian Empire:
- They are weaklings compared to Assyria. (36:4-5)
- Egypt, the only other nation conceivably powerful enough to oppose the Assyrians, will not help them or provide them with weapons. (36:5-6)
- They can’t trust in God to save them because Hezekiah has broken down the high places where they worshipped God. (36:7)
- Assyria has more resources than Judah has people, so it would benefit them to join the Assyrian army. (36:8-9)
- God, in fact, commanded the Assyrians to take and destroy the land of Judah. (36:10)
- King Hezekiah is deceitful and not to be trusted. (36:13-1
- Making peace with Assyria will be of benefit to them. (36:16)
- The King of Assyria will relocate them to a better land than they are living currently. (36:17)
- None of the gods of other peoples saved them from the might of the Assyrians, what makes Judah think their god will be any different? (36:18-20)
Note that points 3 and 5 are at conflict with point 9. Rabshakeh seems to portray the Assyrians as pious and in keeping with the commandments of the Hebrew god, but then by the end declares the Hebrew god to be just as weak and powerless as any other tribal god the Assyrians had already defeated. Clearly, the Assyrians either don’t really believe what they say, or just don’t really care that they are contradictory. Who, being victorious, really cares if their views are technically incompatible?
Also, points 4 and 7 are betrayed by point 8. It would be to Assyria’s benefit that the Judeans surrender without a fight, then they would not have to put their resources into a siege. So, they make surrender sound like an alliance, and they make it sound as attractive as possible. Rabshakeh even makes the forced relocation that the Assyrians forced upon conquered peoples to sound like a good thing. But even then, Rabshakeh cannot completely hide the fact that surrender means being at the mercy of the Assyrian kings whims, and the Assyrians king will relocate them to another land. And in point 4, an alliance really means being forced into the Assyrian army and fighting to conquer other nations (and potentially dying) at the behest of the Assyrian king for the glory of the Assyrian king.
So what is a righteous people who trust in God to do in the face of such a terrifying and seemingly unstoppable force as the Assyrians? Hezekiah prays. Hezekiah declares that perhaps God will hear the blasphemies of Rabshakeh and God himself will rebuke Rabshakeh (37:4). Hezekiah understands that even he, the king of Judah, is incapable of handling the might of Assyria. Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem have to put their faith and trust in God to deliver them from such an overwhelming force. There is no other option than to pray.
Isaiah’s response to this prayer is that God will send the Assyrians back to their land and that he will “fall by the sword in his own land” (37:7). And this is reinforced later in the chapter, God says “because you prayed to me” then I will defeat the Assyrians (37:21). The Assyrians are drawn away from Jerusalem, and they eventually retreat to their own territory. “By the way he came, by the same way he will return” (37:34). There the king is killed by his own two sons in 37:38.
Are there things going on in your life or in the world that seeming overwhelming, like the Assyrians? Perhaps an illness, financial difficulty, family problems, can seem as daunting as an Assyrian army surrounding you and telling you to just give up. Perhaps you look at the world around you and you see radical Islamic terror, wars and threats of wars, the rising tide of secularism within Western Civilization, and these too fill you with dread. They can seem as frightful and as unstoppable as the Assyrians were in Hezekiah’s day. This fear partly comes from knowing that we are not powerful enough to change anything, and we know that if it were up to us alone, we would fail against such formidable foes without and within.
One of the lessons I get from this story is that sometimes all we can do is pray, and we should pray. God was more powerful than the Assyrians, and he is more powerful than all the things we worry about. It is also interesting that it was “because [Hezekiah] prayed to me” that God defeated the Assyrians. Perhaps these things that frighten us are there because God wants to see if we believe in him, if well will rely on his strength and not our own.