Chapters 36 to 39
The Historic Interlude
Difference between divine and secular history. Threefold way of using
Scripture. Assyria is removed. Babylon takes its place. Importance
of the change. Sennacherib's successful invasion of ten tribes;
crosses border of Judah. Humiliation of Hezekiah. Silence the
best answer to abuse. The return of the intermediaries.
In chapters 36 to 39 we now come to the historic interlude, forming a clearly marked second main division in our book, radically differing in its form from (although forming a link between) what precedes no less than from what follows. It will not detain us long; but we must not dishonor it by indifference or neglect, for since it is all profitable that would surely be to our loss. Divine history is never merely history, never simply a true account of past events. If we are enabled to profit by the moral lessons that we can deduce from it, we have not exhausted its profit; there are deeper truths still, of a spiritual character, that are only spiritually discerned, and for that discernment we are dependent on the Spirit of God. Do we not need to own that dependence by prayerfully waiting on the Lord? By that "Comforter" alone can we be led into all truth.
As we have already seen, the recognition of these chapters as a separate division serves to make the whole book a trilogy—that is, it gives the book the significance of that number (3) that speaks of the full manifestation of God.1
A comparison of these chapters with 2 Kings 18:13-20, inclusive, gives every evidence of either both accounts being taken from some common source, or one from the other. Nor, if that be the case, does it seem possible to determine which is the original and which the copy. One commentator assures us that "no impartial reader can doubt that Kings is the older"; and another that "it is inconceivable that the author of Kings should have written it!" With such irreconcilable divergencies, we may feel very thankful that it does not matter at all, and leaving the question as to what human hand first traced these accounts for the commentators to settle between themselves, we will stand firmly for the one Author, the real Source of both being God, the Holy Ghost.
We must, however, judge from the repetition (which we may call threefold, for 2 Chron. 32 also gives its addition) that there is vast importance to be attached to the events thus narrated—that they have a place in the ways of God with Israel His people, and so with men as a race, that is of the deepest significance. Nor does the importance of the drama depend upon the size of the stage on which it is acted. Human histories would give far greater space to wars that appear to affect the destinies of the race; but they would esteem a raid into a little country about the size of Wales as little worthy of notice. Yet the destinies of man, as a "dweller upon the earth," are far more dependent on the Jew than on any other nationality. Spiritually the "casting away of them" (Israel) has been "the reconciling of the world"; "the receiving of them shall be life from the dead" (Rom. 11:15). Now Jehovah begins to sever the ties that bind His people Israel to Himself, ties that their iniquities have long since loosened, and this progressive severance has continued till the final capture of their city by the Romans has evidenced it, as for the time, complete.
Hitherto He has been dwelling at Jerusalem, "between the cherubim," having thus His Throne on earth, and giving in that one little country a sample of His government. As long as that condition prevails no hostile foot can tread that beloved city; and thus the Assyrian never captures it. But now we have come to the time when Assyria is to be eclipsed by Babylon; and Jehovah gives up the direct government of Israel, and commits earth's government to the Gentiles. Nebuchadnezzar then may capture the city, and in so doing begin those "times of the Gentiles" that are characterized, during their whole course, as our Lord tells us, by "Jerusalem being trodden down of the Gentiles" as it is to this very day, and will be until those "times" are fulfilled.
One can therefore see the immense importance that must be attached to the transfer of world-power from Assyria to Babylon, and in this we discern the ground for the repetition of the events of these chapters.
Now too, we must note that the writing is in prose. We shall have poetry again directly; but not here.
The account in Kings gives one detail at least, omitted by Isaiah, that explains the opening sentence of Rabshakeh's speech: "What confidence is this wherein thou trustest?" The course of Sennacherib's campaign had been one of unbroken successes. He had "despised cities," for one after another they had fallen before him, till Hezekiah felt the uselessness of further resistance, and sent an "ambassage desiring conditions of peace," as the Lord Jesus seemed to say was the wisest thing to do under such circumstances (Luke 14:32). But suppose for a moment that Hezekiah had reckoned in this way: "The Assyrian has 20,000 men while I have but 10,000; but in addition I have Jehovah, the Creator of all, whose power and wisdom know no limit; while that poor feeble Assyrian has only a conquered Satanic power at his back, and cannot go one step further than my God shall see it well for us, His people, that he shall go. I will wait then upon Him alone, and leave all in His hands." That would have been common sense if God is, and must be reckoned with. But he "desired conditions," and got them. The consequence was that the Lord's treasury was emptied, and the very doors and pillars of His House were stripped of their covering of gold. That clothing of honor was taken and Jehovah's dwelling left to shame and reproach!
Poor Hezekiah! How weak was he to give up his Lord's honor in the vain hope of peace! But how easy it is for us all to discern others' weakness! It was in vain; even this failed to fill the sum needed for the tribute, or else the Assyrian, having no honor to care for, cared nothing for his own terms, and demanded more. Why not? Treaties among men are of little value when greed and power are combined against them, and are but "scraps of paper" when there is no fear of a Power above all to whom account must be given. Does not recent history tell us that that marvelously strange worker, Evolution (who reminds us greatly of Egypt in being a "boaster who does nothing"), has not effected the slightest difference in the heart of man? If in 2,500 years Evolution has made no difference, how long will it take to effect a complete change? That would be rather a difficult sum to work out.
Further demands Hezekiah could not, or would not fulfil, and so Sennacherib diverted an army-corps under three officers, Tartan, Rabshakeh and Rabsaris, to besiege Jerusalem itself. Isaiah mentions but one of these three, Rabshakeh, a word that tells of the office the bearer of it filled—he was the "Chief cup bearer," and a bitter cup he bears now. He takes his stand at a spot with which the seventh chapter has made us familiar; "The conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fuller's field." This is enough to introduce us to the narrative as told in our prophet, and gives the setting of the drama, which is divided into two Acts. Act 1 and Scene 1 opens with this detachment of Assyrian soldiers about the walls of Jerusalem, and its General standing in a spot where a few years before a King of Judah had preferred the help of Assyria to reliance on Jehovah, where yet the tender grace of that God had given the most wonderful promise on which the hope of all mankind has been made to rest. It was the coming of a Virgin-born Child, who is, and ever will be in Himself, "the conduit of the upper pool," or, as we have seen, the same Hebrew words with equal correctness may be rendered: "The channel (conduit) of blessing (pool) from the Most High (upper)."2 Surely that must be a bad strategic spot for an enemy to take, notwithstanding the weak faith of the House of David.
But there he is, and three representatives of the King come out of the city to meet him. Haughtily, as a conqueror, he addresses them, wondering at the temerity that dare refuse anything to "the great King." What can have given Hezekiah so vain a confidence? It must, Rabshakeh thinks, consist in one of three things, all equally baseless. First, and the most probable, he hopes for help from Egypt. Egypt, that reed that splinters with the least weight put upon it, and pierces the hand that expected its aid! What a reliance!
But possibly—for it is a common report that Hezekiah is a religious fanatic—he may say that he is trusting in Jehovah, his God. How can that be possible? For whose high places has Hezekiah removed but those dedicated to that very Jehovah, insisting on so strict a conformity to his own narrow-minded bigotry, that people must only worship just what, where, and as he thinks right!
Or it is barely possible that he still retains some remnant of dependence on his own army. Let him give hostages then, so that he shall not take advantage of Assyrian liberality, and Rabshakeh will let him have 2,000 horses if he can mount them with riders. He cannot do it. How then can he resist the youngest subaltern in the Assyrian forces?
Rabshakeh has covered the field well. Hezekiah's hopes must be either on the world (Egypt), or on Jehovah, or on his own resources; the spheres of soul, spirit and body—every part of his personality—correspond with these respectively, and the Assyrian has covered them all.
The second is peculiarly interesting, for it shows how utterly incapable an unregenerate man is to discern the motives that govern him who is led of the Spirit. So today: opposition to any thing that is called religious is interpreted in precisely the same way. When the reformers opposed the worship of the Virgin Mary they were charged with blasphemy! It was (and is still) esteemed to be an impious thing not to bow down in adoration at the elevation of the "Host," and how many have been burned at the stake for denying the real presence of the Lord in the bread and wine of the Eucharist!
Has there been any change in man's heart today? Not one whit. Speak of God, or religion in any of its externals, and you will be approved. Speak of Jesus, tell of the virtue of His blood as alone able to cleanse from all sin, and it requires no divinely inspired prophet to tell what will happen; you are at once condemned as a fanatic. Point out how severely God's holy Word condemns our divisions in that Church which is the one Body of Christ, gives no countenance to a humanly-ordained clergy, or a hired ministry, resulting in many a pulpit being filled with an unregenerate man, and you are not likely to be popular. Press further that the Scriptures know nothing of any "Church" made of stone, brick or wood, that the very use of such a tongue obliterates the truth as to the living stones that alone compose the Church of Scripture, and religious people are immeasurably shocked; for are we not taking away the venerable high places?
We sincerely believe that as Israel's place of worship was where her High-priest was, so ours is only where our High-priest is; that is, in the Holiest where (feeble, poor and erring as we are) we have boldness to enter because of the unchanging value and efficacy of the precious Blood of Christ. It is not pleasant to be misunderstood, but we are not losers by returning in self judgment to the path so clearly marked out for us in the Scriptures; to lose by obedience is impossible.
Egypt and the forces of Hezekiah he can understand, estimate and despise, but Rabshakeh seems a little uneasy as to Jehovah; he knows that He is venerated as the God of the Jews, so he boldly cries that he himself is by no means an irreligious man, but is really serving that same Jehovah even in his present attack, for it is He who has commanded him to make it.
That same mysterious deity, Evolution, has not succeeded at all in eliminating these Rabshakehs—they are as plentiful and prominent as ever, and we know them well. What can exceed their claims to reverencing the very Scriptures that they tear to pieces? With what "piety" do they tread under foot the Son of God, making Him less than a true-born child of human parents! They are amazed and grieved that we should think them lacking in reverence even though they count that precious Blood of less value than human character. They are clever, these modern Rabshakehs, as was their ancestor, as is their father (John 8:44).
Rabshakeh's speech cuts deep, and the three plenipotentiaries fear the effect of it on the people who are listening to the colloquy as they sit on the walls, and they beg that Rabshakeh will speak in Aramaic, with which they, as educated men, were familiar, while it had not as yet become (as it did later) the vernacular of the people. The Assyrian, first insulting in the coarsest way the Committee, steps nearer, raises his voice, and addresses directly the very people, thus: "Do not be deceived by Hezekiah—I will not call him king, there is but one worthy of the title, and that The Great King, the King of Assyria—he can not deliver you, nor can your Jehovah. Let me give you some advice: make terms with me, and then you will be at ease till I transfer you to another land of equal fertility and beauty to your own, so that you shall suffer nothing. But on no account let Hezekiah deceive you with such vain hope as that Jehovah will deliver you. That is an old story due to superstition; let history speak, let experience be heard. Where are all the gods who have opposed our march?—Hamath, Arpad, Sepharvaim? Nearer and nearer as we approached they fell one after another. These gods all failed to protect their votaries; and now look at your sister state to the north, Samaria! Of how much avail was Jehovah there? Shall He then deliver you out of my hand?"
This is received in absolute silence, and how often that is the very best answer to malignant reproach in the day of sorrow and humiliation. Shimei must curse unrebuked as long as the Hand of God is on the King. The very shame attached to our scattering is evidence of the same Hand being also upon us today, and we can only endure the reproach in silence, awaiting the intervention in grace of Him who says: "As many as I love I rebuke and chasten," and remember that that is not addressed primarily to an individual, but to the very last condition of the Church as a witness on earth, in which we all have a part.
The first Act then closes with the Jewish representatives seen returning to the city with every external mark of sorrow and of shame. Clothing is not only for warmth but for honor, as the grass is "clothed" with its glory in the flower (Luke 12:28), and so inconsistent is such humiliation with that, that they tear their clothes to express it. Many of us are fully persuaded that the present conditions are so filled with shame, so utterly in contrast with that early day when "great grace was on them all," that to pretend to the same honor as then in works of power is as unfitting as would have been the return of that embassage with laughter and dancing.
1 See Introductory Chapter.
2 See notes on chapter 7.