Part 4 of "Kings: An Epic Bible Story You've Never Heard"
Peter Paul Rubens – The Defeat of Sennacherib
If I asked you to name a miracle in the Bible, you might say "the ten plagues" or "the parting of the Red Sea" or "the resurrection of Jesus". These miracles are more than just well known miracles, they are moments that shaped history. The ten plagues are remembered every time Passover is celebrated. The parting of the Red Sea was an event that liberated the Israelites and gave birth to a new nation. Easter is the grounds upon which all of Christianity is founded. Even for someone who doesn't believe in miracles, these mysterious and unexplainable events undeniably changed the world.
This story is about a miracle that is no less awesome or deserving, but no one ever thinks of it. Personally, I have never heard it taught in church. It won't be found in an illustrated children's Bible and, while it is printed in every edition of the Bible, most people who read it either skim over it or forget it entirely.
I stumbled across this story when I was looking up occurrences of the phrase "the angel of the Lord". This character, who represents a physical manifestation of God prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, appears in some of the most important moments in the Bible. He ate with Abraham and negotiated over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son on an altar. He wrestled with Jacob and named him 'Israel'. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush.
I could not understand how an obscure story in 2 Kings could be important enough to require a visit from the angel of the Lord and, by extension, important enough to join the league of those other stories. I read into the context surrounding his appearance and have since changed my mind about the significance of this story. The angel of the Lord is going to show up in a violent and terrible way and God is about to shift things in his favor in the face of extraordinary odds. I hope you're seated for this.
Before I proceed, if you have not read parts 1-3, or if you just need a refresher, here is what has happened so far:
- In part 1, God himself orchestrates the division of Israel from Judah. The new king of Israel, Jeroboam, sets up idols in the Northern kingdom to distinguish it from the Southern kingdom. In general, he effectively establishes himself as the founder of a long line of evil kings. During his own lifetime, he receives a prophesy saying human bones will be burned on him during the reign of a future king named Josiah.
- In part 2, we read about God's response to the wrongdoing in Israel. This is told through the perspectives of Elijah and Elisha during the reign of the evil king Ahab. We also witness God's enormous capacity for forebearance, as he spares Ahab after Ahab humbles himself.
- In part 3, the Northern kingdom of Israel is finally brought to an end. A king named Jehu performs a violent coup and obliterates Baal worship. After Jehu, Israel gradually disintegrates through a succession of evil kings and violent takeovers. Eventually, it is conquered and its people are exiled by the Assyrians. During Israel's decline, the kingdom of Judah had its own streak of bad kings, hitting its climax with the rise of king Ahaz.
At this early time in world history, ancient peoples believed in numerous gods. When one group was defeated in battle by another group, the conquered would often assume the religious practices of the conquerors, believing their former gods failed to protect them. The Southern kingdom of Judah was unique in its belief in a single God, but the influences of other nations were constantly weighing on them, as evidenced by the disintegration of the Northern kingdom of Israel. At this time, the strongest and most feared nation in the world was Assyria. Assyria was marching throughout the region, conquering its peoples and conforming them to their own practices, leaving no question of who was in charge.
Assyria laid pressure on the Northern kingdom and its surrounding nations, causing the king of Israel and the king of Aram to form an alliance. As these kings retreated from the Assyrians in the North, they invaded Jerusalem to the South, where Ahaz was king. This happened during the time of the prophet Isaiah, who (in Isaiah 7) confronted Ahaz about the invasion and asked him not to fear but to trust in the Lord and ask for a sign. Ahaz refused the advice of Isaiah and instead appealed to the king of Assyria, requesting deliverance from his enemies:
Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death.
2 Kings 16: 7 - 9
The help from Assyria made a lasting impression on Ahaz. He began to worship their gods and even restructured the temple in Jerusalem, modeling it after the Assyrian temples. In all of this, Ahaz coexisted with the Assyrians while angering the Lord. Furthermore, his appeal to the Assyrians did not have a lasting effect; it merely bought time. By the time Hezekiah succeeds to the throne, no amount of treasure can satiate the Assyrian hunger for power. At this time, Judah is compromised both politically and culturally and the new king of Assyria, Sennacherib, is on an unstoppable rampage. But Hezekiah has something his father did not have:
Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him.
2 Kings 18:5-7
Sennacherib's first assault on Jerusalem is one of psychological warfare. He sends messengers to stand outside the gates into Jerusalem to ridicule and instill doubt into the minds of its people. They say things like,
"This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand. Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’"
2 Kings 18:29-30
Sennacherib continues to send demoralizing messages to Jerusalem, making a mockery of the Lord and promising complete destruction if they don't surrender. When things look hopeless for Hezekiah, he falls to his face in despair and utters this amazing prayer:
“Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.
“It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God.”
2 Kings 19:15-19
Immediately after making this prayer, he receives a lengthy message from the prophet Isaiah concerning Sennacherib. After a prayer like Hezekiah's, this response sends shivers down my spine. Here is just an excerpt, all of which is directed at Sennacherib. The first line is in response to Sennacherib's boasting over his military accomplishments:
“‘Have you not heard?
Long ago I ordained it.
In days of old I planned it;
now I have brought it to pass,
that you have turned fortified cities
into piles of stone.
“‘But I know where you are
and when you come and go
and how you rage against me.
Because you rage against me
and because your insolence has reached my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
and my bit in your mouth,
and I will make you return
by the way you came.’
Once more a remnant of the kingdom of Judah
will take root below and bear fruit above.
For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant,
and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.
“The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
“‘[the king of Assyria] will not enter this city
or shoot an arrow here.
He will not come before it with shield
or build a siege ramp against it.
I will defend this city and save it,
for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.’”
Excerpts from 2 Kings 19:21-34
What happens next is a miracle. I would encourage you to research it yourself, but I think you will find that while the actual events are mysterious and unexplainable, they nevertheless resulted in the withdrawal of Sennacherib and his army.
That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.
2 Kings 19:35-36
And in this way, God himself preserved a remnant of Israel.