Hezekiah's second step: he sends to the prophet. Jehovah's
encouragement. The letter. Hezekiah's growth. The song, the sign.
The deputation of three, in telling the result of their mission, communicate their distress to the King; their torn clothes, and sorrowful faces speak clearly enough, but they do not give him the words of Rabshakeh in full. Hezekiah may have weakened through fear, and stripped Jehovah's House, but now, at the end of his own resources, he turns at once, as the quivering needle to the pole, to his true confidence, not to Egypt, but to the House of the Lord, not to take away its gold but to cast himself and the whole nation on the Lord of the House.
In addition to this, he sends to the prophet Isaiah the same deputation, except that the place of the son of Asaph the Recorder is taken by "the elders of the priests," as if in confession that this priestly, or ecclesiastical, link with Jehovah, as well as the personal and political, had failed, and that all depended on that which the grace of Jehovah alone still maintained through His prophet.
They bring a most pathetic appeal: "Oh, in what a day of distress is our lot cast" Constant internal affliction (here is Eliakim, over the household, to speak of that), constant external opposition from foes too strong for us (here is Shebna, the scribe, to tell of that), and constant blasphemy against our God (the priests will tell of that), for the three words used in verse 3, "trouble, rebuke, blasphemy,"1 cover these three spheres—self-ward, earth-ward, God-ward—as represented by the three orders of the deputation. How closely this resembles the condition of things of this day; failure personally, failure of the Church, as a witness in a hostile world, and failure (aye, far worse) God-ward. All now depends on that one link, "The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the beginning of the creation of God"— that can never fail or be broken, but all else has.
And what resources, says Hezekiah, have we to meet all these? We are in such weakness as can only be illustrated by a metaphor that is "expressive of extreme pain, imminent danger, critical emergency, utter weakness, and entire dependence on the aid of others."2 "The children are come to the birth and there is not strength to bring forth."
There is no escape, no going back, no going forward! "It may be," it is possible (note the humble timidity of true, but feeble faith) that Rabshakeh's proud words have entered the ear of the living God (as they had, see verse 29), and that He will rebuke the defiance that is really directed against Him. So we come to thee, O Isaiah, to beg thy intercession for the remnant that may still be found.3 Isaiah is commissioned to answer at once with a reassuring message, "Fear not the words which thou hast heard, wherewith the servants4 of the King of Assyria have insulted Me. And since it is Me that they have insulted it is I who will act, and so affect his spirit that he shall give heed to a rumor, go back to his own country, and there fall by the sword."
This scene then closes with the deputation again returning, but with much more cheerful countenances, and they pass on the courage that the word "Fear not" has given them to the afflicted King and to his people who, we may be sure, are also strengthened and cheered, although the narrative now leaves them and takes us to the main body of the Assyrian army.
To this Rabshakeh returns, and finds the King decamped from Lachish, and besieging Libnah. A rumor had come to him that Tirhakah, king of Ethiopia (as Egypt is here called), was on his way to give him battle. Stung with a sense of his impotence in being compelled thus to desist from his attack on Jerusalem, he feels it necessary to "save his face" and vent his spleen by a letter assuring Hezekiah that his retirement was but temporary, and so destroy any hope Hezekiah might have derived from it. The writing of that letter was a bad day's work for himself as the sequel proved.
It contained little more than a repetition of what Rabshakeh had said, a series of boastings of victories over nations and cities, each of which had been under the protection of some local god, and again the enemy cries: "Where are they all?" Sennacherib, however, goes further back than Rabshakeh in recounting first the earlier victories of his ancestors (verse 12) before coming to the more recent ones of his own arms.5
Hezekiah lets the letter itself speak. He spreads it out before the Lord, and then adds to its silent call for intervention one of the most beautiful outpourings of an afflicted heart of which we have any record, so short and to the point, perfect too in its pure reasonings, for note even the form of the address: "O Jehovah of Hosts, God of Israel, dwelling (between) the cherubim."
"Thou, O Jehovah, art not a tribal deity, but Lord of all hosts, and therefore irresistible; but one people amid all the nations of the earth are Thine, and that is Israel. There Thou art dwelling between the cherubim, those personifications of Thy righteous government, supporting Thy Throne on either side. With such a title, on such a Throne, canst Thou endure the insult of that letter, admit its charges, and endorse injustice and wrong? Surely not; all that is needed is for Thee to take notice of it, and for that I pray. Open Thine eyes and consider its presumption. Let Thine ears be attent to its insults. What it says as to those false gods is true enough; but wilt Thou be placed on a level with such? No, no; save us from his hand; and so shall all the kingdoms of the earth know that there can be no rival to our Jehovah; He, and He only, is Lord."
There are two points in this prayer that I cannot pass over without noting: first Hezekiah admits what is true in the accuser's charge. Now that is surely true wisdom. So there is always truth in the accusations that Satan brings against us, and we shall never overcome him by denying that. But not only admit the truth, make it the very ground of appeal: "Yes, I have sinned; the accuser speaks truth in that; had I not, were that not true, I should have no claim on that precious Blood shed only for sinners like myself. I plead no innocency; but the atoning value of that Blood that always cleanses from all sin." Thus and thus alone will anyone, anywhere, at any time, "overcome him by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of their testimony" as to the value of that Blood.
But again note that Hezekiah intimates that it is alone by the salvation of Israel that "the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea," as he pleads "that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that Thou art the Lord, Thou only."
Jehovah sends an answer through that prophet whose very name tells the nature of his message, Isaiah, "the salvation of Jehovah," and now again we have a magnificent chant, that "proceeds in rhythmic strides on the style of Deborah's song" (Delitzsch). I render it then as literally as possible, attempting to repeat its rhythmic character in English:
22 Despises and laughs thee to scorn,This is the first of the three parts into which this answer of Jehovah divides, and it is so clear and simple that it calls for no extended comment.
Doth the virgin daughter of Zion;
Shakes her head after thee, fleeing,
Doth the daughter of Salem.
23: Whom hast insulted? whom hast blasphemed?
'Gainst whom hast thou raised the voice
And lifted thine eyes up on high?
The Holy One of Israel!
24: By the hand of thy servants
Thou hast railed at Adonai,
And thus hast thou said:
With my chariots countless,
Have I climbed to the summits,
To the heights of the mountains,
And Lebanon's sides;
There will I fell its tall cedars,
The choice of its fir-trees shall fall;
And entrance I'll force to its borders,
To its forest of Carmel.6
25: I have digged and drunk waters,
And dried with my foot-sole
All the rivers of Egypt.7
It begins by bringing before us Jerusalem as a gentle maiden, little adapted for conflict, yet she is seen actually laughing at her proud foe; and as he flees (for that is involved in the word) she shakes her head after him, mockingly. What gives her that courage? This: he, her enemy, has insulted and defied the Holy One of Israel, and thus has sealed his own doom.
And now Jehovah takes up His indictment, and reads the boasts that that proud heart has been making: "Mountains have proved no barrier. My countless chariots have scaled that natural defence of Palestine, the mountain-lands of Lebanon; nor will aught stop me till I have penetrated to the extreme limit of its border, and captured the gem of the country, the forest of its Carmel," which is probably a figure of Jerusalem itself.
But the campaign in Palestine is only an incident, not the main purpose. The Assyrian aims at Egypt, involving the passage through that waterless tract that lies between Asia and Africa. "What of that?" he cries, and he now speaks as if he were a very god, and that what lies before is so sure that he can speak of it as past, "I have dug, and found all the water that I needed, and when I have come to that land of many waters, the mouths of the Nile, I have but placed my foot upon them, and, lo, they have been dried!"8
But now Jehovah comes closer, and replies to that boastful heart in the second part, verses 26 to 29:
26: Hast thou not heard, I did it afar,Thus Jehovah accounts for the victories of evil, and there can be no doubt but that behind this proud Assyrian we may discern the "king of the children of pride," and in this scene may get, in a small sphere, what is taking place in the larger one of God's dealings with mankind, in the which all the victories of evil are only working out His "plan" (ver. 26) that has been formed very long ago, even from before the creation of the world.
From times that are ancient I formed the plan,
And have brought it to pass,
That thou shouldst lay waste, and bring down to ruin
27: Their dwellers were helpless, dismayed and confounded;
Became as the field-grass, or the green herbage:
As grass on the house-top, or corn that is blighted
Before it be grown up.
28: Thy sitting and going, and coming I know:
Thy raging against Me.
29: Because of thy raging, thy self-trust so haughty
Has grown till it reaches My ears.
Therefore I'll place My hook in thy nostril,
And make thee return by the way that thou camest.
There never has been, there is not today, a greater source of perplexity to thoughtful men than to harmonize the permission of evil, nay, its long-continued triumph,
"Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,"
with an almighty and beneficent Governor! How is it possible that Love and Power combined can permit such conditions? But as the victories of the Assyrian had their predetermined limit, so have the apparent triumphs of wrong; we shall learn that a third attribute, Wisdom, governed all, and only carried out God's eternal plan, so that all those apparent triumphs are being overruled for the truest good of His beloved people. Well may we with suffering Job, "faint with longing for that day" (Job 19:27, true reading).
We have had some intensely interesting opportunities of applying these words of the Lord to our own day. Look at Christendom, how unavailing are all policies! How the nations are being driven as dried leaves in the blast! Yet all things are working out that plan. Little may America and Great Britain, France and Italy, Turkey and Russia think that there is an almighty Hand upon the helm; and that it is His counsels that are being so unconsciously carried out; but "whoso is wise and will observe these things, even they shall understand the loving-kindness of the Lord" for His own redeemed (Ps. 107:43). This may well account for the Turk being cast out of Palestine, and thus laying it open for the Jew; for this is demanded, as we know, by God's plan.
One other point is of the deepest significance: on the surface it was poor Israel that the Assyrian struck at; but beneath the surface, and behind Israel, it was Jehovah against whom his rage mounted up. And if there thus was a spiritual Power—even Jehovah—behind Israel, it becomes almost impossible not to discern behind the Assyrian, a spiritual power, even Jehovah's adversary, caring comparatively little for the mere human object of his attack, but ever aiming behind that object, at God Himself, and at that Throne that he was set to guard, and that he would fain fill himself.
The address now turns to Hezekiah and Israel:
30: Let this be thy sign:Hard times lay ahead for the people of God. This year they would have to live on what the enemy left, since it was too late to sow anything; and next year the fare would be still more meager, and only what might spring up automatically from some live root, or from some overlooked seed; but on the third, all fear would be gone, and they would be able to enjoy the fruits of what they had sown or planted.
This year thou shalt eat
That which springs of itself;
Then in the next year
Naught but its sproutings.
But in the third year,
Sow ye and reap; plant vineyards, and eat
Of the fruitage thus freely produced.
31: For again shall the remnant of Judah
Strike its roots deep into the ground,
Whilst its branches spring upward above,
All bearing their burden of fruit.
32: For from fair Salem shall go forth a remnant,
And those who've escaped from Mount Zion.
The zeal of Jehovah of Hosts
Bringeth this into effect.
33: Therefore thus speaketh Jehovah,
Concerning Assyria's king;
He shall not come into this city,
Nor shall he shoot arrow against it,
He shall not assault it with shield,
Nor cast up against it a mound.
34: By the way that he came:
By the same shall he go;
And into this city shall not come,
35: For I will defend this city and save it
Both for My own, and for the sake of
David, My servant.
Thus, in the wisdom of God (which we are apt to overlook arguing only from His love and power), the very trial that might have shaken faith becomes a sign to strengthen and confirm it. Supposing our Bibles had foretold nothing but steady growth of love and holiness wherever the Name of the Lord was professed, and that the gospel should thus win constant victories, each hamlet, town, city and country, as they received it, becoming a very "garden of the Lord," till the whole earth should be precisely as was the Church in Acts 4; how should we feel after 2,000 years when we see "wars and carnage, craft and madness, lust and spite," raging within that very sphere? Should we not feel like throwing those Bibles away, and abandoning ourselves to despair? Surely we should. Then when we are plainly told to expect just the reverse, how those very conditions, sorrowful and humbling as they are, yet become a "sign" to us and confirm our faith. Let things, as in our text, get worse and worse; let the leaven of Papal superstition pervade one section of the professing Church, while the opposite leaven of infidel Modernism permeates the other, and the two threaten to sweep away every vestige of the basic truths of the gospel; let earthquakes convulse the material world, and wars and revolutions the political; let millions be forced to idleness, and depression cloud the nations—all shall prove a sign to faith, for so has it been foretold. And difficult as it may become to get wholesome spiritual sustenance for the two years, His poor people shall not be entirely unnourished,9 the third year shall come, and the joyful in-gatherings of the harvest-home shall justify the anticipations of faith, based on that Word which, though heaven and earth pass away, shall never pass away.
As to Israel, Jehovah has not forgotten David; and for his sake, and for the sake of His own Name—not yet fully told out as it has since been—He will defend that city with which David's name has been so closely identified. Who can help saying: "If He will do this for that poor erring king, what will He not do for His beloved Son, with whom even I (poor sinner as I am by nature) am identified by the life He has given me; to whom I am joined by the Holy Spirit; and on whom I am depending?" Reader, let us ask ourselves that.
That night 185,000 Assyrian soldiers lay down never to rise again in this life! O strong Hand of God, who can defy Thee with impunity! But most careful must we be not to introduce any thought of an eternal penalty being involved in this temporal one. This judgment was not on the individuals slain, any more than on those who suffer in any universal divine chastening. As in the days of the deluge, many a child must have gone to be with the Lord; nor is there anything to forbid the hope that many a penitent, even after the door of the Ark was shut, and there was no hope of being saved from the flood, found mercy for eternity, although not in time. In the divine government of the earth, we see a type of His eternal government; and those who now reject offered mercy and the love of the truth, will as inevitably suffer in and for eternity, as did the Assyrian 185,000 in and for time. "Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of nations: who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?"
The curtain in this first Act of the world drama falls as we see Sennacherib, with the remnant of the Assyrian army, going with utmost speed back to his own land. His place as a world-power is now taken by Babylon, as the remaining portion of this short division intimates.
1 The literal meaning lying at the root of this word is "to deride," "to despise," "to reject with contempt." Its correspondence to the New Testament may be found in Heb. 10:29, "Counted the blood . . . an unholy thing."
3 Note the force of the word. It says that amid all the mass of apostates one would have to seek in order to find those who were true; is there not again similarity today?
4 Heb. "naar," when thus used, is a term of contempt; it is often rendered "lad," as in Gen. 21:12, etc.
5 Mark the significance of these names: "Gozan" from "gooz," "to pass away"; "Haran" from "hoor," "to burn"; "Rezeph," which is the very word used for "coal," and so speaking of the same action of fire, expressive of wrath. So "Hamath" is cognate with "hamah," "burning wrath." Sin and its penalty are suggested by the very names, and thus account for the inability of the places bearing them to stand; the fire of judgment is over them all. It is both interesting and instructive to note too how rapidly Hezekiah grew in grace and the knowledge of the Lord through these severe trials. Note the three steps. First he despoils the House of Jehovah to placate the Assyrian. That proving quite ineffectual, he sends to Isaiah, Jehovah's prophet: but at last he goes straight to Jehovah Himself. At no time do we so grow in that same grace and in our knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as in times of distress and trial. The king's growth illustrates his name which means "strengthened by Jehovah."
6 The word Carmel is a compound, Cerem-El, "the vineyard of God"; expressive of extreme beauty and worth.
7 The fighting between Assyria and Egypt was hereditary. They were natural opponents, but both hostile to Israel, whose land lay between them and suffered, irrespective of which was uppermost. After the death of Alexander the Great, that antagonism was carried on by Greece with Syria on the north and Egypt on the south; and will, we believe, be again renewed in a day not far distant.
8 The word rendered in the Authorized Version "besieged places," is matzohr, used in Isaiah for Mitzraim, Egypt, with a play upon the word, the first meaning of which is "straitened," and so "fenced," "fortified." So the one word speaks of both the country and its military strength; quite unavailing in the mind of the Assyrian.9 The Good Samaritan left two pence, the equivalent of two days' need and wages (Matt. 20:2), to last till he came again. And if his return was delayed, yet the rescued one must not lack.