HEZEKIAH soon learned that the king of Assyria had accepted the special tribute from Judah without honoring the promise to cease war. The humiliation and distress of Hezekiah, king of Judah, wasn't easy to bear. (II Kings 18:13-17.) But there wasn't time to brood. Rab-shakeh, one of the Assyrian officers, was addressing the people of Judah who were standing on top of the wall. He continued his loud tirade against Hezekiah.
An Officer's Boast
"Where is the military power of your king, who is so foolish as to rebel against the powerful Sennacherib?" Rab-shakeh roared. "Could it be that your Hezekiah is waiting for the Pharaoh of Egypt to come galloping to his rescue on his overrated horses? If that's the way it is, your king is due for disappointment, because Pharaoh is about as dependable as a broken reed in the Nile River! "And don't ask us to believe that it will do your king any good for him to rely on his God! Hezekiah forced you to stop sacrificing to your God in your favorite high places and made you crowd in before only one altar in only one temple! How can help be expected from a God who was thus offended? "Why are you people willing to face death by famine merely because your king tells you that your God wants to save you from Sennacherib? Don't you know that for generations the Assyrians have crushed other nations whose gods were never able to protect them? Your God isn't even as powerful as those other gods! "Since Pharaoh won't help you, we will make a wager. We'll give you two thousand horses that are superior to any you could find in Egypt! Then you can send your army out to fight if you dare. Or do you think you could scrape up anywhere near two thousand riders from among all of you? "Now listen to this, which will surprise you! Because your God doesn't care for you anymore, He has asked us to destroy you if you resist." (II Kings 18:18-25.) With this, Rab-shakeh stepped aside for Rabsaris, the chief of Sennacherib's attendants. He continued in the same blasphemous vein. By the time he finished, the audience was somewhat stunned by all the loud bragging and lying. Then Eliakim, Hezekiah's chamberlain, held up his arms to get the attention of the Assyrian officers. "If you have more to say," he called down to them in the Assyrian language, "considerately talk in your native language instead of Hebrew. The three of us understand Assyrian, and we'll pass on your remarks to our king. No good will come of our people hearing what you have to say." "King Sennacherib didn't send us to speak just to you and your king!" Rab-shakeh bellowed back in Hebrew. "We came here to tell all of you that unless you come out to us peacefully, you'll soon have nothing to eat or drink except what comes from your own starving bodies!" (II Kings 18:26-27.) Rab-shakeh continued: "Now hear me, you people of Judah! The mighty Sennacherib warns you not to believe your king when he tells you that your God has the power to save this city! It is a lie! Your only hope is to come out to us! Then you will be free instead of prisoners inside those walls, and you will be given farms to live on in comfort. Many of you will be favored by being taken to a bigger and a richer land where there is an oversupply of grain, grapes, olives and honey! Do you have the wisdom to choose these good things, or do you choose to foolishly follow your fanatical king to your death?" (II Kings 18:28-35.)
The King Appeals to God
There wasn't a sound of reaction from the people of Judah, who had been instructed to remain silent regardless of what they heard. This was disappointing to the Assyrian leaders, who had hoped that there would be some in the crowd who would become so fearful and frantic that they would start clamoring for immediate surrender. He should have realized that when people have strong, concerned leadership, they obey their leaders. Many of the people quietly left the walls, while the more curious stayed to see what the Assyrian leaders would do next. Eliakim, Shebna and Joah were so upset by the situation that they tore their coats in the ancient manner of Israelites who were greatly grieved. (II Kings 18:36-37.) Hezekiah had retired to where he couldn't hear the loud shouting of the Assyrians, but when Eliakim told him all that had been said, he, too, was so overwhelmed by grief that he ripped his coat. Then he removed his royal attire and dressed himself in sackcloth, an Israelite custom of expressing extreme sorrow. He went to the temple to pray. "We must take this matter of impending attack to God through the prophet Isaiah," Hezekiah later told Eliakim. "You know where Isaiah lives. Take Shebna and some of the leading priests with you. Request the prophet to ask God what we should do." (II Kings 19:1-2.) Isaiah had lived a long time in Judah. Back in the last days of King Uzziah he had become a faithful and obedient follower of God's laws. (Isaiah 1:1.) One time when he was in the temple, he was startled to see God sitting on a high throne surrounded by shining, six-winged creatures known as seraphim, who were moving about in a haze of smoke and calling out in praise of the Creator. (Isaiah 6:1-4.) "I am going to die!" Isaiah muttered fearfully to himself. "I am not worthy to see God and live! I am one of a nation of people with unclean lips!" The vision was so real to Isaiah that it was as if he were actually before God's throne. To add to his fright, one of the seraphim flew to a fiery altar, picked up a glowing coal with tongs, and headed straight for Isaiah as though to deliberately burn him. Isaiah couldn't move. The coal was pressed against his mouth, but there was no pain. "Now that this has touched your lips, you have been purged of sin," the seraph said, and flew off to leave Isaiah puzzled and trembling. (Isaiah 6:5-7.) "Whom shall I send to warn the people of Judah of what they will face in the future?" a voice thundered.
Isaiah looked up to see the God of Israel gazing expectantly down on him. "Send me!" Isaiah called out, surprising himself with his readiness to volunteer for something he didn't yet know about. "So be it," God nodded. "You are chosen to tell the people of the misery to come to them unless they turn from their idolatry. They won't listen and they therefore won't understand, but they won't be able to say that I didn't warn them. I shall instruct you from time to time what to say to them. Your warnings will only cause them to become more blind and deaf and have less understanding because they will refuse to change their ways. Nevertheless, continue warning them." "But if they won't listen, how long must I continue doing this thing?" Isaiah asked. "Until the people have been herded from their cities and fields and have been forced to go to other parts of the world," God answered. "Long after that, a tenth part of them shall return, like a planted tree seed, to start a new national growth." (Isaiah 6:8-13.) Like one coming out of unconsciousness, Isaiah slowly realized that he was in the temple, and not in heaven, and that he had seen only a vision of God and the seraphim. He understood that it was a commission from God, and that for the rest of his life it would be his duty to prophesy as God would direct. Down through the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham, Isaiah came to public and royal attention because of his predictions. But in Ahaz's day he was generally ignored. Before the predictions came true, he was usually ridiculed. But by Hezekiah's time, because so many in Judah had turned back to God, Isaiah gained national respect. Hezekiah considered him the man closest to God in Judah. That is why Eliakim and Shebna were sent to him. (II Kings 19:2.) Isaiah wasn't surprised when he saw the two officials at his door. They were dressed in sackcloth, as were the priests who accompanied them. Having been given a strong sense of discernment, Isaiah was aware of why his visitors had come. "I know the king is dismayed by the close presence of the enemy," the graying prophet told them, "but God has already made it known to me that there is nothing to fear. Tell the king that Rab-shakeh has left to ask Sennacherib what to do next. Tell him that bad news will come to the king of Assyria and cause him to change his plans. He will return to his country, where God will cause him to be murdered." (II Kings 19:3-7.) Meanwhile, to the southwest toward the border of Egypt, Sennacherib had ended his siege of Lachish. He decided, next, to move his army northeastward toward Jerusalem, to another walled city, Libnah. This is where Rab-shakeh found him. (II Kings 19:8.) Sennacherib then received a troublesome report that the king of Ethiopia, a nation also known then as Upper Egypt, was on his way north with an army to help the soldiers of Lower Egypt push back the Assyrians. (II Kings 19:9.) Sennacherib immediately decided to pit all his troops against Judah's capital. If he could take Jerusalem, he was certain that the whole nation would be his and that Ethiopians would be defeated. However, he still had hopes of sparing his army from a costly battle by frightening Hezekiah into surrender without any fighting.
The king of Judah soon received this letter from the king of Assyria: "I, Sennacherib, king of the world's most powerful nation, herewith advise you that I am moving the main part of my army to Jerusalem to join my troops who are already there. When all my troops and all my battering rams are put into action, they will reduce the walls of your city to rubble. But I am as fair as I am powerful. I do not war for the sake of war. I liberate men from their attachments to weak and deceptive gods. No god has yet been able to protect his people from me. Neither will your God. It would please me and save thousands of the lives of your people if you would arrange to surrender to my troops who are already there. Then, when I arrive with the part of my army that is with me, we can calmly and reasonably discuss a good future for your people. "But if you are so foolish as to trust in your God, who has deceived you by boasting of His ability to protect Jerusalem, your future will be short and bloody! I shall smash and plunder your city and drag away as slaves any who escape my spears, arrows and swords! Your fanciful God won't be able to do any more for you than the gods of other nations did for their people whom I killed or captured!" (II Kings 19:10-13; II Chronicles 32:9-19.) Hezekiah was so perturbed by this letter, delivered directly by Sennacherib's messengers, that he went at once to the Temple. There he spread the letter out before God and kneeled down to pray. "God of Israel, Creator of the universe," Hezekiah began, "please listen to me. See in this letter the blasphemous words of the king of Assyria and how he has tried to belittle you. He boasts that the gods of other nations have failed to save those nations from his invasions. To brag about being more powerful than lifeless idols of wood, stone and metal is nothing. The troublesome part is that he has swallowed up one nation after another because they trusted in idols instead of trusting in your supreme power. Rescue us from this pagan scourge, I beseech you. Then people everywhere will learn that you are the one and only true God." (II Kings 19:14-19; II Chronicles 32:20.) When Hezekiah returned to his palace, Eliakim and Shebna were waiting for him with the encouraging message from Isaiah. They informed the king of Judah that God had heard and would answer the prayer he had uttered at the temple, asking for help against the Assyrians.
"With God as your strength, there is no reason for you to be fearful or discouraged," Isaiah's message read. "Even the young women of Jerusalem hold Sennacherib in such contempt that they laugh at the mention of his name, though his troops are just outside the city. God has been greatly angered by his blasphemy and his boasting about the nations he has conquered. "This swaggering tyrant, suffocating in his egotism, would be shocked out of his shirt if he could know that he never would have become king of Assyria or won even one small battle if the God of Israel hadn't allowed it. Any success he had in conquering other nations was because the Creator chose to use him to carry out a small bit of a plan formed centuries ago. "Now God is through with him, and because of his despicable acts and words against our God and against you, God will send him back to his country. Then the fields and orchards the Assyrians have ravaged will produce of themselves, in spite of their mutilated condition — a miraculous sign of God's power and willingness to help Judah. Those who have been driven off their farms, and are taking refuge in Jerusalem, shall return safely to find fruits, grains and vegetables starting to grow without attendance. "As for Sennacherib, he shall not set foot inside this city. Not one arrow shall be shot against it from an Assyrian bow. No enemy soldier shall approach the wall with his shield in front of him. The Assyrians shall not put even a shovelful of dirt against the wall to start building a bank from which to attack you. God will protect Jerusalem because He wants to, and because of the covenant He made with King David more than three hundred years ago. All this God has made known to me so that I should inform you." (II Kings 19:20-34.) Calmed and comforted by Isaiah's message, Hezekiah couldn't help but feel shame and regret for having fallen into doubt, especially after trying to strengthen and encourage his people by telling them there was nothing to fear as long as they obeyed and trusted God. When the inhabitants of Jerusalem heard what Isaiah had to say to their king, most of them felt almost jubilant. By this time the sun was setting. Darkness came. It was the eve of the Passover, the 14th of Nisan — the first month of the spring of the year. That night (II Kings 19:35), all that could be learned of the Assyrians was that they were very busy, judging from the shouted orders and the clatter of arms and equipment. This was followed by the sounds of obvious revelry for the next two or three hours. That was followed at midnight by an ominous silence. Either the Assyrians had decided to sleep for the night — or they were silently carrying out some plan of attack.