War of Words (Isaiah 36-37)
War of Words
Bryan Craddock – September 3, 2023
In Isaiah 36-37, the Assyrians use three common accusations against faith in God to intimidate King Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem. They argue that their faith is (1) inconsistent; (2) ineffective; and (3) incorrect. We will see how Hezekiah and his spokesmen react and how the Lord responds to them to learn how we can handle such accusations. This sermon is part 6 of “Faith Under Siege,” Bryan Craddock’s series of expository sermons on Isaiah 28-39.
The old nursery rhyme says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If only that were true! Some things that people say to us leave wounds that never seem to go away. If someone pokes at them, even unintentionally, the pain comes rushing back. But the good news is that the word of God can renew our minds and enable us to take control of our thoughts. We turn now to a passage that helps equip us for that battle.
Isaiah 36-37 recounts the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian army around 701 B.C. In addition to the parallel biblical accounts of this crisis in 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32, there are also Assyrian records of the campaign. Of course, the Assyrians came against the city with more than sticks and stones. Their troops fought on foot and on horseback with swords, spears, and bows, but this was also a war of words.
The biblical account of the conflict focuses on dialogue that takes place between three main characters, mostly through their spokesmen. The aggressor was the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, and he communicated through one of his officials called the Rabshakeh. The king of Judah was Hezekiah and he had three representatives: Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah. Finally, we must not overlook the third party in this dispute, the Lord God himself, who spoke through his prophet, Isaiah.
This military siege was also a spiritual attack. The Assyrians used three common accusations against faith in God to intimidate King Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem. As we work through Isaiah’s account, we will consider these arguments. We will see how Hezekiah and his spokesmen reacted to them (both good and bad) and how the Lord responded to them.
Now you and I may never live through a military siege, but we face the same war of words. We encounter the same accusations against our faith that can distort our thinking and demoralize us. They may come from a co-worker, a neighbor, a family member, or even from within our own hearts. The battle never ends. But this passage gives us the opportunity to prepare, so that by God’s grace we will stand firm.
Accusation 1: Your Faith is Inconsistent
Watching television today is much different than in times past. When you received analog broadcasts through an antenna, there would always be some degree of static. The worse it got, the more the picture would be covered up by flickering snow, and the sound would be drowned out by an annoying hiss. You could fidget with the antenna for hours trying to pick up a better signal. But sometimes there was so much interference that you could not even follow along with whatever it was that you were trying to watch. You might just give up in frustration.
When it comes to faith in God, we can be like those old TVs. We were created to stay connected with the Lord. Many people lack that connection, but we who have it still encounter a lot of interference. Our lives are filled with static and hiss that keep us from presenting a clear picture of who God is, and our critics love to point out that inconsistency. They dismiss us as hypocrites. They tell us to give up on faith, and some people do.
The Assyrians use this accusation to begin their war of words against the people of Jerusalem. Today we would call it psychological warfare. They must have had good information from spies, because even the place where they meet is significant. Isaiah 36:1-2 tells us,
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field.
This is the same spot where Isaiah confronted Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz. Isaiah 7 tells us that Ahaz was afraid of being attacked by the northern kingdom of Israel, so he was going to form an alliance with Assyria. Isaiah called him to trust the Lord and even offered him a sign, the virgin birth. But Ahaz made the alliance anyway and led his people to embrace some aspects of the idolatrous Assyrian religion.
After Ahaz died, his son Hezekiah led a rebellion against Assyria and a revival of biblical worship. Now as individuals, significant time and effort is required for a change of heart to reach every corner of our life and transform our habits. How much more so for an entire nation! So, the Rabshakeh exploits that inconsistency. Verses 3-6 tell us,
And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder. And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.
The Rabshakeh is right. Egypt is not trustworthy. In fact, we saw in Isaiah 30-31 that the Lord warned his people that such an alliance was foolish. They should have trusted in him alone, but they were being immature. So, the Rabshakeh questions their devotion. Verse 7 tells us that he said,
But if you say to me, “We trust in the LORD our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar”?
In Deuteronomy 12, the Lord commanded his people to destroy all the idolatrous mountain top altars in the land and to worship him at one central location. But the people never obeyed. Even if they claimed to be worshiping the Lord, these high places led them to do so in ways that God detested. Hezekiah was right to remove them. Some people think that the Rabshakeh does not understand this, but perhaps he does. This form of worship is deeply ingrained in people. They had been doing it for centuries. By questioning Hezekiah’s reforms, the Rabshakeh is leading the people of Judah to doubt their own commitment to the Lord.
If destroying the high places severed their connection with God, would they be able to defend themselves? The Rabshakeh wanted them to doubt their strength as well. According to Isaiah 36:8-9, he told them,
Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
God’s people were not supposed to trust in horses and chariots as the key to victory. Isaiah 31 shows that the prophet had warned them of this. But they still held this worldly assumption, and they felt weak because of it. Second Chronicles 32:1-6 records that Hezekiah made reasonable preparations by securing the city’s water supply, building up the walls, and stockpiling weapons. But he still pursued an alliance with Egypt, and the Rabshakeh mocks them for it. Yet his strongest argument comes in verse 10, where he says,
Moreover, is it without the LORD that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The LORD said to me, “Go up against this land and destroy it.”‘”
Did the Assyrians receive revelation from the Lord? Probably not, but they might have heard about a message that Isaiah delivered to King Ahaz several years earlier. Isaiah 10:5-6 says that the Lord called Assyria the rod of his anger that he was sending against his people, a godless nation, to tread them down. He also said that afterward he would punish Assyria for their arrogance and restore his people, but the Rabshakeh conveniently ignores that part.
The inconsistency of Judah’s faith in the Lord is clearly exposed, but one more point could have been raised. Second Kings 18:14-16 records that Hezekiah made a cowardly attempt to patch things up with the Assyrians by paying them tribute. He sent all the silver from the palace and the temple and even stripped the gold off the temple doors. But that did not pacify the Assyrians. It only whetted their appetite.
So, how do the leaders of Judah react to this confrontation? Verse 11 says,
Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.”
They try to cover it all up and keep it quiet. They want to maintain the illusion that they are in control, handling this dispute with Assyria. Political leaders often react this way in crises. Sadly, church and ministry leaders do the same. In fact, most of us are afraid to let anyone know how bad things in our lives are. We are just too proud. But if we conceal our sins from others, will we confess them to the Lord? Probably not.
I mentioned earlier that this is a three-way conversation, but Isaiah is not present at this moment to deliver a word from the Lord. Perhaps he should have been there. Would these men have wanted that? Would they have been afraid of what the Lord might say? We do not know.
We do, however, see a very different response from another biblical king when his sins were exposed. When the Prophet Nathan confronted David about his adultery with Bathsheba, David wrote Psalm 51 and gave it to the choirmaster to be sung publicly. He began in verses 1-3 by saying,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Concealing our sinfulness does not benefit anyone. First John 1:9 tells us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us. We must repent of our inconsistent faith, and this openness about our faults should extend to our relationships with people. We should humbly acknowledge our failures. If you are in leadership, those who follow you need to see your willingness to repent and change. Furthermore, confessing our hypocrisy also disarms our critics. We can acknowledge that though our faith is sometimes inconsistent, God is faithful and true. We can reaffirm our commitment to trust and obey him.
As we have seen, the leaders of Judah did not respond that way. Their attempt to cover things up, played right into the Rabshakeh’s hands. So, he raised a second accusation.
Accusation 2: Your Faith is Ineffective
If you buy a car and it does not work well, we say that you got a lemon. It’s a sour experience. It can be expensive and time-consuming. But there are things you can do to avoid that scenario. You can go for a test drive. You can have a mechanic inspect the vehicle. Some states even have laws that require sellers to take the car back and give you a refund.
Can you take that pragmatic approach to religious faith? Can you test drive it for a while to see if it works for you? Should we expect God to produce results on our timetable? That attitude is the exact opposite of faith in him, but we are still tempted to think that way. So, the Assyrian Rabshakeh tries to plant this idea in the minds of the people of Jerusalem. Your faith won’t work. It’s ineffective. It’s a lemon. Give it up.
First, he frightens them with the grim possibility of what a prolonged siege would entail. The whole point is to starve people into submission. Verse 12 tells us,
But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?”
Of course, the Rabshakeh speaks as if there is no possible escape. He claims that Hezekiah is misleading them. Faith will not work. Verses 13-15 say,
Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD by saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”
He makes it sound as if trusting the Lord is entirely Hezekiah’s idea, as if he is even coercing the people. The Rabshakeh wants them to make their own determination about whether Hezekiah’s faith is working for them. So, he gives them an alternative. Verses 16-17 tell us that he said,
Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.
He promises them a shortcut to all the things they want. Place your faith in the king of Assyria instead. He will take you away to a plentiful land. This relocation may sound good, but the Assyrian strategy was to scatter people to different parts of their empire among other refugees, so that they would all lose any sense of national identity. Then they might be less likely to rebel.
The Rabshakeh finishes his speech in verses 18-20 with one more argument. No other faith enabled a nation to resist the king of Assyria. He says,
Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?'”
Like many people today, he seems to assume that all religions are basically the same. So, if other faiths did not work, why would yours? How do Hezekiah and his representatives respond? Isaiah 36:21-37:4 says,
But they were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him.” Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. As soon as King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the LORD. And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, ‘This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the LORD your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.'”
Their initial silence may be wise. It is certainly good to think before you speak. Tearing their clothes was an expression of extreme emotion in their culture. Perhaps that was understandable under the circumstances. But Hezekiah’s message to Isaiah seems to lack any confidence in the Lord. “It may be that the Lord will hear”? He wants Isaiah to pray, but there is no explicit mention of Hezekiah or the other leaders praying at this point.
How does the Lord respond? Isaiah gives them a surprisingly short answer. He does not seem to show any sympathy for their distress. Verses 5-7 tell us,
When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.'”
The Lord simply tells them to stop worrying. Trust him. He can handle the king of Assyria and his obnoxious young men. In fact, just as the Lord said, the king of Assyria later broke off his attack and returned to Nineveh.
Sometimes we all need that kind of simple response. Stop worrying. God hears. He knows. Don’t overthink the crisis of the moment. Psalm 46 gives us helpful advice. It speaks of earthquakes and wars but concludes in verses 10-11 by saying,
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
As we face this war of words, we must trust God’s word. Accept what he says about himself. Find your rest in him even though that response will not silence your critics.
Accusation 3: Your Faith is Incorrect
Boxers wear gloves to soften their blows. A bare-knuckle punch is much harder. So, when a conflict gets serious, we talk about the gloves coming off, and that is exactly what happens with the Assyrians in Isaiah 37. Their first two accusations about inconsistent and ineffective faith were padded. They were dancing around their core argument. Their final blow seeks to disparage the Lord directly by telling Hezekiah that his faith in God is incorrect.
But before we get to that accusation, Isaiah’s account adds some details that suggest that the Assyrians were not as powerful as they pretended to be. Isaiah 37:8-9 says,
The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah, for he had heard that the king had left Lachish. Now the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Cush, “He has set out to fight against you.” And when he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying…
Lachish and Libnah are towns on the southwest edge of Judah’s territory in the foothills along the coastal plain. We know from Assyrian records that Sennacherib had made his way down the coast. Hezekiah had probably fortified these cities to protect Jerusalem farther east up in the mountains, so Sennacherib is not having an easy time destroying them. If he moves on to Jerusalem, any remaining troops from those cities might attack him from the rear. Plus, he has heard that Tirhakah, king of Cush, a representative of Egypt, is enroute.
So, Sennacherib is getting desperate. According to verses 10-13, he tells his messengers,
“Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: ‘Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?'”
Sennacherib chooses a new target for his verbal attack. He directs this message against the Lord. He accuses him of deceiving Hezekiah. He assumes that the Lord is just like all the other false gods that could not save those other cities.
When you encounter this kind of attack on God, the best thing you can do is to let the Lord handle it. That is what Hezekiah does. Verses 14-20 tell us,
Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the LORD.”
Was Hezekiah praying this way all along? He might have done so, but the accounts do not mention it until this point. It seems as if he finally recognizes that this is not just about him or his people but about the glory of God. It was an opportunity for the Lord to demonstrate his sovereign power. We need to recognize that the same could be said of every crisis we face. As Jesus said, we should always be praying “Hallowed be thy name!” (Matt 6:9).
The Lord responds with messages about the Assyrians and for the people of Jerusalem. First, he proclaims his sovereignty over blasphemous King Sennacherib. Verses 21-29 say,
Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him: “‘She despises you, she scorns you– the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you– the daughter of Jerusalem. Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes to the heights? Against the Holy One of Israel! By your servants you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon, to cut down its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses, to come to its remotest height, its most fruitful forest. I dug wells and drank waters, to dry up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt. Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown. “‘I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.’
The Lord confronts Sennacherib’s arrogance. He mocked the Lord and boasted of his power, but the Lord was using him all along to accomplish his own purpose. Do you accept that the Lord continues to work that way? Do you believe that the world’s worst tyrants and bullies unknowingly serve God’s purpose? He knows everything about them, and he will hold them accountable for their actions. One day they will all be humbled.
As the Lord continues, he addresses the future of his people in Jerusalem. Verses 30-35 tell us,
“And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”
The Lord would be faithful to his covenant promises. The people of Jerusalem needed to keep believing his word. He would protect them and provide for them. But they needed to understand that he was doing it for his own sake, for his glory.
We must see that the same truth applies to us. In every trial that we encounter, he is working all things together for our ultimate good and his ultimate glory. In 1 Peter 1:6-7, Peter expressed this truth by saying,
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
So, how did the Lord save the people of Jerusalem? Isaiah 37:36-38 tells us,
And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. And after they escaped into the land of Ararat, Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place.
The Assyrian records of this campaign do not mention the angel of the Lord. They, of course, portray it as a great victory. They list all the towns that Sennacherib conquered. There is even an engraving of his archers attacking Lachish. The records also boast that Hezekiah was caged like a bird, yet Jerusalem did not fall to the Assyrians. Sennacherib ended up returning to Nineveh, dying several years later just as Isaiah said he would. The Lord reigns!
We all face these accusations from people. They say that our faith is inconsistent, ineffective, and incorrect. Are you willing to trust our sovereign God anyway? If you have never done so, I encourage you to start believing his word. This is the only way to find victory in this war of words. If you want to learn more about the power of God’s word in a world where faith is under siege, I direct you to the third chapter of 2 Timothy.
Perhaps you believe, but your faith is inconsistent. Don’t cover it up, confess it. Trust his promise of forgiveness. Be open about your faults, and give all glory to God. Pray for his name to be exalted through our victories and our failures. May God be glorified!
How have you personally faced these accusations? Who raised them? How did you respond?
How would you change your response to these accusations in the future?
What can we learn from Hezekiah’s prayer? How should you change your own approach to prayer?