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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

2 Kings 19

 

 

Verses 1-37

THE GREAT DELIVERANCE

B.C. 701

2 Kings 19:1-37

"There brake He the arrows of the bow, the shield, the sword, and the battle."

- Psalms 76:3.

"And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword Hath melted like snow at the glance of the Lord."

- BYRON.

"Vuolsi cosi cola dove si puote Cio che si vuole: e piu non dimandare."

- DANTE.

"Through love, through hope, through faith’s transcendent dower, We feel that we are greater than we know."

- WORDSWORTH.

"God shall help her, and that when the morning dawns."

Psalms 46:5

IN spite of the humble submission of Hezekiah, it is a surprise to learn from Isaiah that Sennacherib-after he had accepted the huge fine and fixed the tribute, and departed to subdue Lachish-broke his covenant. {Isaiah 33:8} He sent his three chief officers-the Turtan, or commander-in-chief, whose name seems to have been Belemurani; {Isaiah 20:1} the Rabsaris, or chief eunuch; and the Rabshakeh, or chief captain-from Lachish to Hezekiah, with a command of absolute, unconditional surrender, to be followed by deportation. By this conduct Sennacherib violated his own boast that he was "a keeper of treaties." Yet it is not difficult to conjecture the reason for his change of plan. He had found it no easy matter to subdue even the very minor fortress of Lachish; how unwise, then, would it be for him to leave in his rear an uncaptured city so well fortified as Jerusalem! He was advancing towards Egypt. It was obviously a strategic error to spare on his route a hostile and almost impregnable stronghold as a nucleus for the plans of his enemies. Moreover, he had heard rumors that Tirhakah, the third and last Ethiopian king of Egypt, was advancing against him, and it was most important to prevent any junction between his forces and those of Hezekiah. He could not come in person to Jerusalem, for the siege of Lachish was on his hands; but he detached from his army a large contingent under his Turtan, to win the Jews by seductive promises, or to subdue Jerusalem by force. Once more, therefore, the Holy City saw beneath her often-captured walls the vast beleaguering host, and "governors and rulers clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men." Isaiah describes to us how the people crowded to the house-tops, half dead with fear, weeping and despairing, and crying to the hills to cover them, and bereft of their rulers, who had been bound by the archers of the enemy in their attempt to escape. They gazed on the quiver bearing warriors of Elam in their chariots, and the serried ranks of the shields of Kir, and the cavalry round the gates. And he tells us how, as so often occurs at moments of mad hopelessness, many who ought to have been crying to God in sackcloth and ashes gave themselves up, on the contrary, to riot and revelry, eating flesh, and drinking wine, and saying: "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die." {Isaiah 22:1-13} The king alone had shown patience, calmness, and active foresight; and he alone, by his energy and faith, had restored some confidence to the spirits of his fainting people. Although the city had been refortified by the king, and supplied with water, the hearts of the inhabitants must have sunk within them when they saw the Assyrian army investing the walls, and when the three commissioners-taking their station "by the conduit of the upper pool which is in the highway of the fuller’s field"-summoned the king to hear the ultimatum of Sennacherib. The king did not in person obey the summons; but he, too, sent out his three chief officers. They were Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who, as the chamberlain (al-hab-baith), was a great prince (nagid); Shebna, who had been degraded, perhaps at the instance of Isaiah, from the higher post, and was now secretary (sopher); and Joah, son of Asaph, the chronicler (mazkir), to whom we probably owe the minute report of the memorable scene. No doubt they went forth in the pomp of office-Eliakim with his robe, and girdle, and key. The Rabshakeh proved himself, indeed, "an affluent orator," and evinced such familiarity with the religious politics of Judah and Jerusalem, that this, in conjunction with his perfect mastery of Hebrew, gives color to the belief that he was an apostate Jew. He began by challenging the idle confidence of Hezekiah, and his vain words that he had counsel and strength for the war. Upon what did he rely? On the broken and dangerous bulrush of Egypt? It would out pierce his hand! On Jehovah? But Hezekiah had forfeited his protection by sweeping away His bamoth and His altars! Why, let Hezekiah make a wager; and if Sennacherib furnished him with two thousand horses, he would be unable to find riders for them! How, then, could he drive back even the lowest of the Assyrian captains? And was not Jehovah on their side? It was He who had bidden them destroy Jerusalem!

That last bold assertion, appealing as it did to all that was erroneous and abject in the minds of the superstitious, and backed, as it was, by the undeniable force of the envoy’s argument, smote so bitterly on the ear of Hezekiah’s courtiers that they feared it would render negotiation impossible. They humbly entreated the orator to speak to "his servants" in the Aramaic language of Assyria, which they understood, and not in Hebrew, which was the language of all the Jews who stood in crowds on the walls. Surely this was a diplomatic embassy to their king, not an incitement to popular sedition!

The answer of the Rabshakeh was truly Assyrian in its utterly brutal and ruthless coarseness. Taking up his position directly in front of the wall, and ostentatiously addressing the multitude, he ignored the representatives of Hezekiah. Who were they? asked he. His master had not sent him to speak to them, or to their poor little puppet of a king, but to the people on the wall, the foul garbage of whose sufferings of thirst and famine they should share. And to all the multitude the great king’s message was:-Do not be deceived. Hezekiah cannot save you. Jehovah will not save you. Come to terms with me, and give me hostages and pledges and a present, and then live in happy peace and plenty until I come and deport you to a land as fair and fruitful as this. How should Jehovah deliver them? Had any of the gods of the nations delivered them out of the hands of the King of Assyria? "Where are the gods of Hamath, and of Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have the gods of Samaria delivered Samaria out of my hand, that Jehovah should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?"

It was a very powerful oration, but the orator must have been a little disconcerted to find that it was listened to in absolute silence. He had disgracefully violated the comity of international intercourse by appealing to subjects against their lawful king; yet from the starving people there came not a murmur of reply. Faithful to the behest of their king in the midst of their misery and terror, they answered not a word. Agamemnon is silent before the coarse jeers of Thersites. "The sulfurous flash dies in its own smoke, only leaving a hateful stench behind it!" And in this attitude of the people there was something very sublime and very instructive. Dumb, stricken, starving, the wretched Jews did not answer the envoy’s taunts or menaces, because they would not. They were not even in those extremities to be seduced from their allegiance to the king whom they honored, though the speaker had contemptuously ignored his existence. And though the Rabshakeh had cut them to the heart with his specious appeals and braggart vaunts, yet "this clever, self-confident, persuasive personage, with two languages on his tongue, and an army at his back," could not shake the confidence in God, which, however unreasonable it might seem, had been elevated into a conviction by their king and their prophet. The Rabsak had tried to seduce the people into rebellion, but he had failed. They were ready to die for Hezekiah with the fidelity of despair. The mirage of sensual comfort in exiled servitude should not tempt them from the scorched wilderness from which they could still cry out for the living God.

Yet the Assyrian’s words had struck home into the hearts of his greatest hearers, and therefore how much more into those of the ignorant multitudes! Eliakim and Shebna and Joah came to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. And when the king. heard it, when he found that even his submission had been utterly in vain, he too rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth, {1 Kings 20:32; 2 Kings 6:30} and went into the only place where he could hope to find comfort, even into the house of the Lord, which he had cleansed and restored to beauty, although afterwards he had been driven to despoil it. Needing an earthly counselor, he sent Eliakim and Shebna and the elders of the priests to Isaiah. They were to tell him the outcome of this day of trouble, rebuke, and contumely; and since the Rabshakeh had insulted and despised Jehovah, they were to urge the prophet to make his appeal to Him, and to pray for the remnant which the Assyrians had left.

The answer of Isaiah was a dauntless defiance. If others were in despair, he was not in the least dismayed. "Be not afraid"-such was his message-"of the mere words with which the boastful boys of the King of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, and he shall hear a rumor, and shall return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land."

Much crestfallen at the total and unexpected failure of the embassy, and of his own heart-shaking appeals, the Rabshakeh returned. But meanwhile Sennacherib had taken Lachish, and marched to Libnah (Tel-es-Safia), which he was now besieging. There it was that he heard the "rumor" of which Isaiah had spoken-the report, namely, that Tirhakah, the third king of the Ethiopian dynasty of Pharaohs, was advancing in person to meet him. This was B.C. 701, and it is perhaps only by anticipation that Tirhakah is called "King" of Ethiopia. He was only the general and representative of his father Shabatok, if (as some think) he did not succeed to the throne till 698.

It was impossible for Sennacherib under these circumstances to return northwards to Jerusalem, of which the siege would inevitably occupy some time. But he sent a menacing letter, reminding Hezekiah that neither king nor god had ever yet saved any city from the hands of the Assyrian destroyers. Where were the kings, he asked again, of Hamath, Arpad, Sepharvaim, Hena, Ivvah? What had the gods of Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the children of Eden in Telassar done to save their countries from Sennacherib’s ancestors, when they had laid them under the ban?

Again the pious king found comfort in God’s Temple. Taking with him the scornful and blasphemous letter, he spread it out before Jehovah in the Temple with childlike simplicity, that Jehovah might read its insults and be moved by this dumb appeals Then both he and Isaiah cried mightily to God, "who sitteth above the cherubim," admitting the truth of what Sennacherib had said, and that the kings of Assyria had destroyed the nations, and burnt their vain gods in the fire. But of what significance was that? Those were but gods of wood and stone, the works of men’s hands. But Jehovah was the One, the True, the Living God. Would He not manifest among the nations His eternal supremacy?

And as the king prayed the word of Jehovah came to Isaiah, and he sent to Hezekiah this glorious message about Sennacherib:

"The virgin, the daughter of Zion, hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn. The daughter of Jerusalem hath shaken her head at thee."

The blasphemies, the vaunts, the menacing self-confidence of Sennacherib, were his surest condemnation. Did he count God a cypher? It was to God alone that he owed the fearful power which had made the nations like grass upon the housetops, like blasted corn, before him. And because God knew his rage and tumult, God would treat him as Sargon his father had treated conquered kings:-

"I will put My hook in thy nose, and My bridle in thy lips. And I will turn thee back by the way by which thou earnest."

He had thought to conquer Egypt: instead of that he should be driven back in confusion to Assyria.

It was but a plainer enunciation of the truths which Isaiah had again and again intimated in enigma and parable. It was the fearless security of Judah’s lion; the safety of the rock amid the deluge; the safety of the poor brood under the wings of the Divine protection from "the great Birds" nester of the world; the crashing downfall of the lopped Lebanonian cedar, while the green shoot and tender branch out of the withered stump of Jesse should take root downward and bear fruit upward.

And the sign was given to Hezekiah that this should be so. This year there should be no harvest, except such as was spontaneous; for in the stress of Assyrian invasion sowing and reaping had been impossible. The next year the harvest should only be from this accidental produce. But in the third year, secure at last, they should sow and reap, and plant vineyards and eat the fruit thereof. And though but a remnant of the people was left out of the recent captivity, they should grow and flourish, and Jerusalem should see the besieging host of Assyria no more forever; for Jehovah would defend the city for His own sake, and for His servant David’s sake.

Thereafter occurred the great deliverance. In some way-we know not and never shall know how-by a blast of the simoom, or sudden outburst of plague, or furious panic, or sudden assault, or by some other calamity, the host of Assyria was smitten in the camp, and one hundred and eighty-five thousand, including their chief leaders, perished. The historian, in a manner habitual to pious Semitic writers, attributes the devastation to the direct action of "the angel of the Lord"; {Comp 2 Samuel 24:15-16} but as Dr. Johnson said long ago, "We are certainly not to suppose that the angel went about with a sword in his hand, striking them one by one, but that some powerful natural agent was employed."

The Forty-Sixth Psalm is generally regarded as the Te Deum sung in the Temple over this deliverance, and its opening words, "God is our refuge and strength," are inscribed over the cathedral of St. Sophia at Constantinople.

It is usually supposed that this overwhelming disaster happened to the host of Assyria before Jerusalem. This, however, is not stated; and as the capture of Lachish was an argent necessity, it is probable that the Turtan led back the forces which had accompanied him, and took them afterwards to Libnah. Yet, since Libnah was but ten miles from Jerusalem, the Jews could not feel safe for a day until the mighty news came that the

"Angel of God spread his wings on the blast,

And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed,

And the eyes of the sleepers waxed heavy and chill,

And their breasts but once heaved, and forever grew still."

When the catastrophe which had happened to the main army and the flight of Sennacherib became known, the scattered forces would melt away.

All the Assyrians who escaped were now hurrying back to Nineveh with their foiled king. Sennacherib seems to have occupied himself in the north, except so far as he was forced to fight fiercely against his own rebel subjects. He never recovered this complete humiliation, he never again came southwards. He survived the catastrophe for seventeen or twenty years, and fought five or six campaigns; but at the end of that period, while he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch or Assarac (Assur), his god, he was murdered by his two sons Adrammelech (Adar-malik-"Adar is king") and Sharezer (Nergal-sarussar-"Nergal protect the king"), who envied him his throne. They escaped into the land of Ararat, but were defeated and killed by their younger brother Esarhaddon (Assur-akh-iddin-Assur bestowed a "brother") at the battle of Hani-Rabbat, on the Upper Euphrates. He succeeded Sennacherib, and ultimately avenged on Egypt his father’s overwhelming disaster. He is perhaps the "cruel lord" Isaiah 19:4, and it is not unnatural that he should have prevailed against his parricidal brothers, for we are told that in a previous battle at Melitene he had shown such prowess that the troops then and there proclaimed him King of Assyria with shouts of "This is our king." He reigned from B.C. 681-668, and in his reign Assyria culminated before her last decline. He was the builder of the temple at Nimrod, and erected thirty other temples. Babylon and Nineveh were both his capitals, {2 Chronicles 33:11} and he had previously been viceroy of the former.

The glorious deliverance in which the faith and courage of the King of Judah had had their share naturally increased the prosperity and prestige of Hezekiah, and lifted the authority of Isaiah to an unprecedented height. Hezekiah probably did not long survive the uplifting of this dark cloud, but during the remainder of his life "he was magnified in the sight of all nations." {2 Chronicles 32:23} When he died, all Judah and Jerusalem did him honor, and gave him a splendid burial. Apparently the old tombs of the kings-the catacomb constructed by David and Solomon-had in the course of two and a half centuries become full, so that he had to be buried "in the ascent of the sepulchers," perhaps some niche higher than the other graves of the catacomb, which was henceforth disused for the burial of the kings of Judah. We have had occasion to observe the many particulars in which his reign was memorable, and to his other services must be added the literary activity to which we owe the collection and editing, by his scribes, of the Proverbs of Solomon. His reign had practically witnessed the institution of the faithful Jewish Church under the influence of his great prophetic guide.

The question whether the portent of the destruction of the Assyrian was identical with that related by Herodotus has never been finally answered. Herodotus places the scene of the disaster at Pelusium, and tells this story:-Sennacherib, King of the Arabs and Assyrians, invaded Egypt. Its king, Sethos, of the Tanite dynasty, in despair entered the temple of his god Pthah (or Vulcan), and wept. The god appeared to him with promises of deliverance, and Sethos marched to meet Sennacherib with an army of poor artisans, since he was a priest, and the caste of warriors was ill-affected to him. In the night the god Pthah sent hosts of field-mice, which gnawed the quivers, bow-strings, and shield-straps of the Assyrians, who consequently fled and were massacred. An image of the priest-king with a mouse in his hand stood in the temple of Pthah, and on its pedestal the inscription, which might also point the moral of the Biblical narrative, ("Let him who looks on me be pious"). Josephus seems so far to accept this version that he refers to Herodotus, and says that Sennacherib’s failure was the result of a frustration in Egypt. The mouse in the hand of the statue probably originated the details of the legend; but according to Horapollion it was the hieroglyphic sign of destruction by plague. Bahr says that it was also the symbol of Mars. Readers of Homer will remember the title Apollo Smintheus ("the destroyer of mice"), and the story that mice were worshipped in the Troas because they gnawed the bow-strings of the enemy.

But whatever may have been the mode of the retribution, or the scene in which it took place, it is certainly historical. The outlines of the narrative in the sacred historian are identical with those in the Assyrian records. The annals of Sennacherib tell us the four initial stages of the great campaign in the conquest of Phoenicia, of Askelon, and of Ekron, the defeat of the Egyptians at Altaqu, and the earlier hostilities against Hezekiah. The Book of Kings concentrates our attention on the details of the close of the invasion. On this point, whether from accident, or because Sennacherib did not choose to register his own calamity, and the frustration of the gods of whose protection he boasted, the Assyrian records are silent. Baffled conquerors rarely dwell on their own disasters. It is not in the dispatches of Napoleon that we shall find the true story of his abandonment of Syria, of the defeats of his forces in Spain, or of his retreat from Moscow.

The great lesson of the whole story is the reward and the triumph of indomitable faith. Faith may still burn with a steady flame when the difficulties around it seem insuperable, when all refutation of the attacks of its enemies seems to be impossible, when Hope itself has sunk into white ashes in which scarcely a gleam of heat remains. Isaiah had nothing to rely upon; he had no argument wherewith to furnish Hezekiah beyond the bare and apparently unmeaning promise, "Jehovah is our Judge; Jehovah is our Lawgiver; Jehovah is our King. He will save us." It was a magnificent vindication of his inspired conviction, when all turned out-not indeed in minute details, but in every essential fact-exactly as he had prophesied from the first. Even in B.C. 740 he had declared that the sins of Judah deserved and would receive condign punishment, though a remnant should be saved. {Isaiah 6:11-13} That the retribution would come from some foreign enemy-Assyria or Egypt, or both-he felt sure. Jehovah would hiss for the fly in the uttermost canals of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria, and both should swarm in the crevices of the rocks, and over the pastures. {Isaiah 5:26-30} Later on in 732, in the reign of Ahaz, he pointed to Assyria, {Isaiah 7:18} as the destined scourge, and he realized this still more clearly in 725 and 721, when Shalmaneser and Sargon were tearing Samaria to pieces. {Isaiah 8:1-22, Isaiah 28:1-15, Isaiah 10:28-34} Contrary, indeed, to his expectation, the Assyrians did not then destroy Jerusalem, or even formally besiege it. The revolt from Assyria, the reliance on Egypt, did not for a moment blind his judgment or alter his conviction; and in 701 it came true when Sennacherib was on the march for Palestine. {Isaiah 14:29-32; Isaiah 14:29-30} Yet he never wavered in the apparently impossible conclusion, that, in spite of all, in spite even of his own darker prophecies, {Isaiah 32:14} Jerusalem shall in some Divine manner be saved. {Isaiah 1:19-20} The deliverance would be, as he declared from first to last, the work of Jehovah, not the work of man, {Isaiah 10:33; Isaiah 29:5-8; Isaiah 30:20-26; Isaiah 30:30-33} and because of it Sennacherib would return to his own land and perish there. The details might be dim and wavering; the result was certain. Isaiah was no thaumaturge, no peeping wizard, no muttering necromancer, no monthly prognosticator. {Isaiah 47:13} He was a prophet-that is, an inspired moral and spiritual teacher who was able to foresee and to foretell, not in their details, but in their broad outlines, the events yet future, because he was enabled to read them by the eye of faith ere they had yet occurred. His faith convinced him that predictions founded on eternal principles have all the certainty of a law, and that God’s dealings with men and nations in the future can be seen in the light of experience derived from the history of the past. Courage, zeal, unquenchable hope, indomitable resolution, spring from that perfect confidence in God which is the natural reward of innocence and faithfulness. Isaiah trusted in God, and he knew that they who put their trust in Him can never be confounded.

No event produced a deeper impression on the minds of the Jews, though that impression was soon afterwards, for a time, obliterated. Naturally, it elevated the authority of Isaiah into unquestioned pre-eminence during the reign of Hezekiah. It has left its echo, not only in his own triumphant paeans, but also in the Forty-Sixth Psalm, which the Septuagint calls "An ode to the Assyrian," and perhaps also in the Seventy-Fifth and Seventy-Sixth Psalms. In the minds of all faithful Israelites it established forever the conviction that God had chosen Judah for Himself, and Israel for His own possession; that God was in the midst of Zion, and she should not be confounded: "God shall help her, and that right early." And it contains a noble and inspiring lesson for all time. "It is not without reason," says Dean Stanley, "that in the Churches of Moscow the exultation over the fall of Sennacherib is still read on the anniversary of the retreat of the French from Russia, or that Arnold, in his lectures on Modern History, in the impressive passage in which he dwells on that great catastrophe, declared that for the memorable night of the frost in which twenty-thousand horses perished, and the strength of the French army was utterly broken, he knew of no language so well fitted to describe it as the words in which Isaiah described the advance and destruction of the hosts of Sennacherib."

They had been brought face to face, the two kings-Sennacherib and Hezekiah. One was the impious boaster who relied on his own strength, and on the mighty host which dried up rivers with their trampling march-the worldling who thought to lord it over the affrighted globe; the other was the poor kinglet of the Chosen People, with his one city and his enfeebled people, and his dominion not so large as one of the smallest English counties. But "one with God is irresistible," "one with God is always in a majority." The poor, weak prince triumphs over the terrific conqueror, because he trusts in Him to whom world-desolating tyrants are but as the small dust of the balance, and who "taketh up the isles as a very little thing." As {Isaiah 11:15} Assyria now vanishes almost entirely from the history of the Chosen People, we may here recall with delight one large and loving prophecy, to show that the Hebrews were sometimes uplifted by the power of inspiration above the narrowness of a bigoted and exclusive spirit. Desperately as Israel had suffered, both from Egypt and Assyria, Isaiah could still utter the glowing Messianic Prophecy which included the Gentiles in the privileges of the Golden Age to come. He foretold that-

"In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and Assyria, as a blessing in the midst of the land: whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance." {Isaiah 19:24-25}

"That strain I heard was of a higher mood!"

"King Hezekiah can have no finer panegyric than that of the son of Sirach: Even the kings of Judah failed, for they forsook the law of the Most High: all except David, and Ezekias, and Josias failed." (Sirach 49:4)

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 19:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-kings-19.html.

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