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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 36, or, The Rab-Shakeh

Hello again,

We're embarking today on the final stretch of Isaiah "Part I" -- the story of Jerusalem's last great king, Hezekiah. Dive in below with the translation and essay.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 36

1. It happened in the fourteenth year that Hezekiah was king: Sennacherib, King of Assyria, rose up against the fortressed cities of Judah, and he seized them all.

2. And this king of Assyria sent his Rab-shakeh in might and majesty of forces from Lachish to Jerusalem, to King Hezekiah. And he stood at the channel of the uppermost reservoir on the thoroughfare of the Fuller's Field.

3. Then Eliakim, Hilkiah’s son, came out to meet him — Eliakim who watched over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, Asaph’s son, the record keeper.

4. The Rab-shakeh said to them, ‘say this to Hezekiah: “this is what the great king, Assyria’s king, says: ‘what is this assurance you’re so assured of?

5. ‘“‘I myself say: it's nothing but flapping lips and empty proclamations. I have a battle plan and fighting men — and you, in whom are you so confident that you defy me?

6. ‘“‘Look at you, relying on a crutch, this splintered stalk: on Egypt, which — if anyone leans his weight on it — will go right through his hand and skewer it. That’s how Pharaoh, King of Egypt, is to everyone who relies on him.

7. ‘“‘Now, should you say to me, “it’s on God, our god, that we rely” — isn’t that the god whose lofty heights and altars Hezekiah had removed, then said to Judah and Jerusalem, “at the front of this altar, you will prostrate yourselves.”‘?

8. ’“So now swear fealty to my master, Assyria’s king, and I’ll give you two thousand horses — if you can give them riders.

9. ‘“how can you turn away even one captain, the most minor of my master’s servants, and entrust yourselves to Egypt for their chariots and horsemen?”

10. ‘Now, am I rising up against this land without God? It was God who said to me, “rise up against this land, and lay waste to it.”’

11. And Eliakim spoke, and Shebna, and Joah, to Rab-shakeh: ‘talk to your servants in Syriac: we understand it, so don’t talk to us in Hebrew — the people are listening on the wall.’

12. But the Rab-shakeh said, ‘did my master send me to your master, and to you, so I could speak that kind of speech? Didn’t he send me to those people on that wall, eating their own dung and drinking their own piss with you?

13. Then the Rab-shakeh took his stand and called out loud in a grand voice, in Hebrew, and he said: ‘listen to the proclamations of the great king, the king of Assyria!

14. ‘This is what the king says: “don’t let Hezekiah delude you: he can’t save you.

15. ‘“And don’t let Hezekiah win your trust for God by saying, ‘God who rescues will rescue us — this city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

16. ‘“Don’t listen to Hezekiah.”
‘Because this is what Assyria’s king says: “cut a deal with me, and come expose yourselves to me — let every man eat from his own vine, and every man from his own fig tree, and let every man drink water from his own well,

17. “Until I come and take you to a land like your own land: a land of wheat and winepresses; a land of bread and vineyards.

18. ‘“Watch out that Hezekiah doesn’t mislead when he says, ‘God will rescue us.’ Did any other nations’ gods deliver even one man’s territory from the hand of Assyria’s king?

19. ‘“Where are Hamath’s gods? And Arphad’s? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my hand?

20. ‘“Which god is there in all these territories that has rescued its territory out of my hand? And God’s going to deliver Jerusalem?”’

21. But they held their tongues, and didn’t say a word in answer. Because the king’s command was, ‘don’t answer him.’

22. And Eliakim, Hilkiah’s son, who watched over the household, and Shebna the accountant, and Joah, Asaph’s son, the record-keeper, went to Hezekiah with clothes torn and told him the Rab-shakeh’s pronouncements.

-- -- --

Hezekiah was a good man and a good king. He wasn't like his father -- Ahaz had bent his knee to Assyria and its false deities. But Hezekiah broke those idols, foul mockeries of the true God. He led the people out against their ancient enemies, the Philistines, and he won. After his father's miserable reign of political malfeasance and religious crime, Hezekiah did everything right. It wasn't enough.

By the time Hezekiah came to the throne it was too late and Assyria was too powerful. King Sennacherib was the grandson of Tiglath-Pileser III, with whom Ahaz had made a treaty to keep the lesser threats of Aram and Damascus at bay. The high cost of this safeguard was tribute to Assyria, which Ahaz paid, making Israel effectively a vassal state. In the moment of unstable transition when the new Assyrian emperor came to power, Hezekiah saw his chance to undo what his father had done -- he rebelled and made a desperate grab at freedom.

In doing so he was encouraged by his advisors to cut a deal with Egypt, the competing empire which would have loved to see Assyria fall. God knew that Egypt couldn't deliver on its promise to back Israel. But to Hezekiah, stranded as he was in the midst of powerful and dedicated enemies, the chance of cavalry reinforcements from the south must have seemed unspeakably appealing. As Hezekiah's cabinet pressured him, Isaiah insisted that to ally with Egypt would represent exactly the kind of faithless reliance on human aid that had revealed Ahaz's corruption when he turned to Assyria for safety.

There Hezekiah stood, trapped between repeating the sins of his father and the prospect of exposure to a vast and hostile army. The simple fact is that we don't know, because the Bible doesn't tell us, exactly what Hezekiah decided. Israel clearly did make an alliance with Egypt, because Isaiah makes reference to it numerous times. But there are plenty of commentators who assume that the nobles drew up the aggreement without Hezekiah's consent, because Hezekiah was too virtuous ever to make such a mistake.

If you ask me, though, I think the reality of this story is much deeper and more tragic than that. I suspect Hezekiah, though he had all the strength and faith any fallen man can muster, was still broken and frail, weighed down beneath generations and generations of sin. I think Israel made its alliance with Egypt under his reign because he wavered, and let it happen. No matter how virtuous he was, Hezekiah simply had not been trained in, or blessed with, the kind of vision that would have allowed him to see the truth of things. The kind of faith which says, "though everything, the whole world, seems arrayed against me, still I will hold fast and trust in the lord." That is the kind of vision that comes along once in a lifetime, if that. In Hezekiah's day, only Isaiah had it.

Chapters 36-39 -- the last four chapters in this first section of Isaiah's two-part prophecy -- tell the history of how Hezekiah's Jerusalem fell. In this chapter, Sennacherib sends a high-ranking military official, the Rab-shakeh, to intimidate the Israelite leaders into submission.

The Rab-shakeh knew exactly what to say: "look around," he taunted the Israelites: "where is your God?" This encounter takes place when the Assyrian armies have swept pitilessly into Judean territory and right up to the outskirts of Jerusalem. The list of cities in verse 19 is a resumé of Sennacherib's conquests: Hamath, Arphad, Sepharvaim, Samaria. They all fell, the Rab-shakeh boasts. Their gods did not save them. Why should yours?

"Don't let Hezekiah delude you," says the Rab-shakeh in verses 14-15: "don't let Hezekiah win your trust for God." This pious king tells you that there is some magic man in the sky coming to your aid if you only wait and trust. But look at the state of things: Assyria is the only god. There is no power to bow before but Sennacherib.

The voice of the Rab-shakeh is the voice of the world. "Look at the state of things," it says: "you can't possibly believe that God will make this alright." I guess that sometimes, in his weakest moments, Hezekiah listened to that voice too. I know for sure that I do. Maybe you know what I mean: those times when the world presents itself to you in all its fury and terror, and the heart within you melts.

It's not enough, I don't think, simply to say "don't listen to that voice." You shouldn't, of course: that voice always lies. God does save, and the Assyrias of the world will fall in the end. But the fact of the matter is that we all, the Hezekiahs among us included, falter sometimes. The message of Isaiah is not only that God will save: it is that he will save regardless, knowing as he does that even his faithful are fragile and inconstant. Though the Rab-shakeh speaks -- though sometimes even the best of us listen -- still God will have the last word. You are weak, but you are not too weak for him.

Rejoice evermore,

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