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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 37, or, The Prayers of the King

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Below, please find a long chapter and a short essay. Enjoy!

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 37

1. And it happened that when King Hezekiah heard, he tore his clothes, and wrapped himself in burlap, and went to the house of God.

2. And he sent Eliakim, who watched over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priesthood, wearing burlap, to Isaiah, Amoz’s son, the prophet.

3. And they said to him, ‘this is what Hezekiah says: today is trouble and chastisement; a day of scorn: the babies are coming to term, and there’s no strength to give them birth.

4. ‘Maybe God, your god, will hear the Rab-shakeh’s proclamations that his master, Assyria’s king, sent to mock the god who lives — and will upbraid him for those proclamations, which God, your god, has heard. So lift up a prayer for the stragglers left behind, those who can still be found.’

5. So the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah.

6. And Isaiah said to them, ‘say this to your master: “this is what God says: ‘don’t be afraid of the proclamations you’ve heard, which these boys from Assyria’s king used to blaspheme me.

7. ‘“‘See how I am placing a spirit within him, and he’ll hear something, and when he hears what he hears he’ll go back to his territory, and there in his own territory I will make him fall at the point of a blade.’”’

8. Then the Rab-shakeh went back and found Assyria’s king at war with Libnah — because he had heard that he had moved out from Lachish.

9. And he heard this said about the King of Kush, Tirhakah: ‘He marches out to war with you.’ He heard, and he sent messengers to Hezekiah. He said:

10. ‘This is what you say to Hezekiah, king of Judah: say, “don’t allow this god of yours, the one you count on, to delude you when he says ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

11. ‘“Look, you’ve heard what Assyria’s kings have done to all the territories: they annihilated them. But you’ll be saved?

12. ‘“Did any of the other nations' gods save them, the nations that my fathers crushed? Gozan and Haran and Rezeph and the sons of Eden who were in Telassar?

13. ‘“Where’s the king of Hamath, or the king of Arphah, or the king of Sepharvaim’s city now? of Hena? of Ivah?”’

14. But Hezekiah took the letter from the envoys’ hands, and read it. Then Hezekiah went up to the house of God and spread the letter out in front of God.

15. And Hezekiah prayed to God. He said,

16. ‘God of Legions, Israel’s god, seated among the Cherubim: it is you; you alone are god over all kingdoms of earth; you made the heavens and the earth.

17. ‘Lean your ear towards me, God: listen. Open your eyes, God, and see; hear all the proclamations of Sennacherib: he sent them to mock the god who lives.

18. ‘It is surely true, God: Assyria’s kings have sliced through all the territories with all their land,

19. ‘Thrown their gods into the fire, because they weren’t gods, only things made by human hands — wood and stone, and they destroyed them.

20. ‘And now, God, our god — save us from his hand, so they’ll know — all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you are God, only you.’

21. And Isaiah son of Amoz sent word to Hezekiah: he said, ‘so says God, the god of Israel: “as you’ve prayed to me against Sennacherib, Assyria’s king,

22. ‘“This is the proclamation that God proclaims about him: ‘Zion's daughter, the maiden, mocks and disdains you; Jerusalem’s daughter tosses her head back and laughs at you.

23. ‘“‘Whom do you revile? Whom do you blaspheme, and against whom do you raise up your voice, raise up the hauteur of your eyes? Against Israel’s Sacred One.

24. ‘“‘By the hand of your servant you reviled my Master, and you said, “with a horde of cavalry I’ll go up on high on the mountains, into the heart of Lebanon, and I’ll hew down its towering cedars and its choicest cypress trees, and I’ll go up on high to the edges of its forest thickets.

25. ‘“‘“I quarried and I drank water, and with the pads of my heels I dried up all the rivers around the bunkers.”

26. ‘“‘Haven’t you heard from a great distance that I did it? From days long gone by that I formed its outline? Now I’m the one who brought it about, for city strongholds to be laid waste, left in desolate ruin.

27. ‘“‘So the people living there, with their puny forces, they were beat down and ashamed; they were like grass in the field and like green moss, like weeds on rooftops and like crops before they sprout.

28. ‘“‘But I know your sitting, and going out, and travelling, and I know your raging against me.

29. ‘“‘Because your raging has come up to my ears, I’m going to put my hook up your nose and my bridle in your jaw, and make you retreat on the same road you came down.’

30. ‘“This is the sign for you: this year you’ll eat what grows on its own; next year you’ll eat what comes out of that; and in the third year you’ll plant and harvest, and sow vineyards, and eat their fruits.

31. ‘“Then once again those left behind, stragglers of the house of Judah, will put down roots and yield up fruit.

32. ‘“Yes, from Jerusalem those left behind will go forth, and stragglers from the mountain, Zion: the fierce desire of God with his Legions will do this.”

33. ‘Therefore so says God about Assyria’s king: “he won’t come to this city. He won’t shoot his arrow here, won’t face it down with a shield or heap up his ramparts against it.

34. ‘“He’ll go back down that same path he came on, and he won’t come to this city,” declares God.

35. ‘“I will guard this city and save it, for my sake and the sake of David, my servant.”’

36. So God’s angel went out to the Assyrian camp, where he struck down 185,000 of them. Then when people got up at the crack of dawn, look: every one of them was a cadaver, dead.

37. Then Sennacherib, King of Assyria, set off to go — to return, and to settle in Nineveh.

38. And it happened: there he was prostrate, worshipping his god Nisroch, when his sons Adrammelech and Sarezer struck him down at the point of a blade — but they themselves slipped away into the land of Ararat, while Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon reigned in his place.

-- -- --

Let me tell you a story about how the king of God's city found himself vulnerable and desperate before God's throne. What's happening in this chapter is as follows: the voraciously ambitious Sennacherib has taken power in Assyria, succeeding his father Sargon II. Any time one of the sprawling Mesopotamian monarchies of the 8th century BC changed hands, there were furious but frequently ill-fated scuffles for power among those smaller states which had been subjugated or forced to pay tribute to the dominant empire. While the imperial government was rendered momentarily unstable in its transition period, the peoples in its sway saw their moment to escape.

Caught up in the energy of one such moment, the virtuous king Hezekiah of Jerusalem had attempted to shake off Assyria's rule. It was a failure: against the will of God, Jerusalem made a treaty with Egypt that proved totally inadequate to rebuff the might of the Assyrian army. Now in about 701 BC Sennacherib himself, newly secure in his power, comes ready to beseige Jerusalem and give a terrifying retributive display of brute strength. In the previous chapter Sennacherib sent his Rab-shakeh -- a high-ranking military official -- to bully Hezekiah into submission. Hezekiah turned the Rab-shakeh away, and so Sennacherib himself (now engaged in countering another offensive from the king of Kush, i.e. Ethiopia) sends a letter of his own to Hezekiah.

The kind of fortitude that Hezekiah had shown up to this point is astonishing. Notwithstanding the disastrous Egyptian treaty, the monarch of Judah stood firm as he was threatened with the same utter conquest that every city around him had suffered. There is no doubt that Sennacherib intended to visit rape, murder, and unspeakable pain upon the Jewish people unless their king relented.

In the context of that threat, chapter 37 is an intimate scene of desperation. Wearing mourning clothes (verse 1) and with hardly any hope of military success, Hezekiah does the only thing he knows how to do in such a situation: he prays. The last great king of Judah before the exile, a man who had led the Israelites against the Philistines and won, whose heroic efforts cleansed the temple of false idols, has no recourse now except the God whom he has worshipped all his life. "Save us," he pleads, "so they'll know -- all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you are God, only you" (verse 20). Where other cities' gods had failed to protect them, Hezekiah trusted that the true God would prevail.

Through the mouth of Isaiah, an answer came: "I will guard this city and save it," God declared (verse 33). Hezekiah's desperation drove him into the arms, not of Assyria, but of God. God's response was to immediately strike down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers by a supernatural hand (verse 36) and to assassinate Sennacherib by the swords of his own sons (verse 38). Hezekiah was too late, and his faith was not great enough, to lead Jerusalem into lasting salvation. Only one man, the Messiah, was enough to do that. In time the city would fall, though not to Assyria. But in the chapters to come Isaiah will tell the story of how God, moved by Hezekiah's reliance upon him, kept Jerusalem safe a while longer.

We talk a lot these days about strength and vulnerability, and how much of either men ought to display. It's worth noting, I think, that Hezekiah in this chapter exhibits an extremity of both. His utter dependency upon God is what enables his steely-eyed resistance to the Rab-shakeh and Sennacherib. Critics of masculinity, especially as it was taught in traditional societies like Jerusalem, worry that men who are encouraged to be taciturn run the risk of smothering their emotions and so suffocating their humanity. But actually I don't think the biblical ideal of manhood is like that at all. Heroes like Hezekiah don't swallow their weakness or beat it out of themselves: they just know the proper place to take it. God, properly understood, is the one in comparison to whom even the greatest king really is small, feeble, and needy. A true awareness of this encourages an utterly childlike reliance upon the only person who has any real might at all, the only God who can do the impossible. Before that God, Hezekiah is helpless. And that is why he found the courage to defy, alone, the greatest army his people had ever seen.

Rejoice evermore,

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