Isaiah 36 – A Demoralizing Attack on Faith
A. Rabshakeh speaks to leaders in King Hezekiah’s government.
1. (1-3) Officials from King Hezekiah’s government meet Rabshakeh, general of the armies of Assyria.
Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. Then the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And he stood by the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s Field. And Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came out to him.
a. In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah: This was about the year 700 B.C., during the reign of the godly King Hezekiah of Judah. The events of this chapter are also recorded in 2 Kings 18:13-27 and 2 Chronicles 32:1-19.
i. This begins a four-chapter section different than the prophecies recorded before or after. Isaiah 36 and 37 describe the LORD’s work against the Assyrian threat. Isaiah 38 and 39 describe the response to the Babylonian threat.
ii. “This is history at its best, not dull recital of statistics and dates but an account which enables us to sense the haughty arrogance of the Assyrian and the chilling clutch of despair at the hearts of the Israelites.” (Cundall, cited in Grogan)
b. Sennacherib King of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them: This Assyrian invasion has been the broad background for much of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah chapters 1 through 35. Now, Isaiah gives us a historical record of what happened during the time he prophesied about.
i. The Assyrian army swept down from the north, conquering Syria and Israel, as Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 8:3-4 and many other passages. The Assyrian army then came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them, as Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 7:16-17 and many other passages.
c. Then the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem: At the time of Isaiah 36:1-3, the Assyrian army has conquered both Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel and has devastated the countryside and fortified cities of Judah. All that remains is Jerusalem, and if the Assyrians conquer her, then Judah is destroyed as a nation just as Syria and Israel were. These were the desperate times of King Hezekiah.
i. Who was the Rabshakeh? Actually, it is a title, not a name. It describes the “field commander” for the Assyrian army, who represented the Assyrian King Sennacherib. “Rab-shakeh, an Assyrian title, possibly originally ‘chief cup-bearer’ but by this time some high officer of state.” (Motyer)
ii. The mention of Lachish is important historically. Lachish was thirty miles south-west of Jerusalem. Archaeologists have discovered a pit there with the remains of about 1,500 casualties of Sennacherib’s attack. In the British Museum, you can see the Assyrian carving depicting their siege of the city of Lachish, which was an important fortress city of Judah.
d. He stood by the aqueduct from the upper pool…. Eliakim…Shebna…Joah…came out to him: Rabshakeh seems to be in complete command of the situation. He can walk right into the city of Jerusalem and stand at the crucial water supply – which would be Jerusalem’s lifeline in a siege attack. As he stands there, three officials from Hezekiah’s government come to meet him.
2. (4-6) Rabshakeh speaks against Judah’s trust in an alliance with Egypt.
Then the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say now to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: “What confidence is this in which you trust? I say you speak of having plans and power for war; but they are mere words. Now in whom do you trust, that you rebel against me? Look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.
a. What confidence is this in which you trust? One of the great battles for Hezekiah during this time was the temptation to make a defensive alliance with Egypt, which seemed to be the only nation strong enough to protect Judah against the mighty Assyrians.
i. As a prophet, Isaiah did everything he could to discourage Hezekiah and the leaders of Judah from putting their trust in Egypt (Isaiah 19:11-17, 20:1-6, 30:1-7). The LORD wanted Judah to trust Him instead of Egypt.
ii. In this sense, Rabshakeh is speaking the truth! God wanted Judah to have no confidence in Egypt at all. But Rabshakeh isn’t doing it to bring Judah to a firm trust in the LORD God, who can and will deliver them from the Assyrians. He does it to completely demoralize Judah and drive them to despair.
iii. Satan attacks us the same way! Often, even when he tells the truth (“You are such a rotten sinner!”), he never does it to lead us to a firm trust in the LORD our God (“Jesus died for sinners, so if I am a rotten sinner, Jesus died to forgive and free me!”). Instead, Satan’s strategy – even if he tells us the truth – is always to demoralize us and drive us to despair.
b. You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt: Strangely, Rabshakeh could see the truth of Egypt’s weakness better than many of the leaders of Judah could.
i. “Egypt had made its one attempt to redeem its promises (28:14) and its army had been beaten at El Tekeh. The Rab-shakeh had himself seen this, but his words are more far-reaching and damaging, exposing the criminal stupidity of Judah’s leaders: surely, he said, they knew that anyone who ever trusted Egypt suffered for it.” (Motyer)
3. (7) Rabshakeh speaks against Judah’s trust in God.
“But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar’?”’
a. If you say to me, “We trust in the LORD our God”: Rabshakeh anticipated the response of the leaders of Judah. “Rabshakeh, you say that we can’t trust in Egypt. All right, we won’t. But we can trust in the LORD our God.”
b. Is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away? Rabshakeh knew that King Hezekiah had implemented broad reforms in Judah, including the removal of the high places (2 Kings 18:3-4).
i. The high places were spots of “individual worship” which were prohibited by God’s law (Leviticus 17:1-4). Israel was commanded to bring their sacrifices to the official center for sacrifice (the tabernacle or later, the temple). In the pagan world at that time, it was customary to offer sacrifice wherever one pleased – altars would customarily be built on high hills, in forested areas, or at other special places.
ii. That practice may have been fine for the time of the patriarchs. But now, God regarded sacrifice at high places as an offense. Hezekiah did right when he took away the high places and the altars, demanding that people come to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice.
iii. This command runs completely contrary to the way most people come to God in our culture. For the most part, Americans have an entirely individualistic way of coming to God, where each person makes up their own rules about dealing with God as they see Him. In the book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues interview a young nurse named Sheila Larson, whom they describe as representing many Americans’ experience and views on religion. Speaking about her own faith and how it operates in her life, she says: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It is ‘Sheilaism.’ Just my own little voice.” This “pick-and-choose-as-I-go-along-according-to-my-inner-voice” approach is just like picking your own high place and altar to sacrifice to God the way you want to instead of the way God wants you to.
c. Is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away? In Rabshakeh’s thinking, Hezekiah’s reforms have really displeased God, so he should not expect help from the LORD God of Israel. Rabshakeh would say, “Look at all the places there used to be where people would worship the LORD God of Israel. Now, since Hezekiah came in, there is only one place. More is always better, so the LORD God of Israel must be pretty sore at Hezekiah!”
i. The enemy of our souls has an amazing way of discouraging our obedience. If Hezekiah was not careful, this argument of Rabshakeh would start to make sense, when really it was demonic logic through and through.
ii. “The theological misunderstanding shown by the field commander at this point argues for the authenticity of the speech, which many critics have dubbed a free creation by the author of the narrative.” (Grogan)
4. (8-9) Rabshakeh speaks against the army of Judah.
Now therefore, I urge you, give a pledge to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses—if you are able on your part to put riders on them! How then will you repel one captain of the least of my master’s servants, and put your trust in Egypt for chariots and horsemen?
a. Give a pledge to my master the king of Assyria: This reminds us of Rabshakeh’s whole strategy, which is to make Judah give up. This is the entire reason Rabshakeh is at the aqueduct, speaking to these leaders of Hezekiah’s government. He had the vastly superior armies; he could have just attacked Jerusalem without this little speech. But Rabshakeh would prefer it if Judah would simply give up, out of fear, discouragement, or despair.
i. The enemy of our soul uses the exact same approach. Many of us picture Satan as “itching for a fight” with us. Really, Satan doesn’t want to do battle with you. First of all, there is the strong chance you will win. Second of all, win or lose, the battle can draw you closer to the LORD. Thirdly, what the LORD does in your life through the battle can be a great blessing for other people. No, Satan would much rather not fight you at all! He would much rather try to talk you into giving up.
ii. We see this exact strategy used against Jesus during His temptation in the wilderness. When Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for Jesus’ worship, Satan was trying to avoid the fight, and trying to talk Jesus into giving up (Luke 4:5-8). It didn’t work with Jesus, and it shouldn’t work with us.
b. I will give you two thousand horses–if you are able on your part to put riders on them: Here, Rabshakeh mocked Judah’s weak army. He said, “Even if we helped you with 2,000 horses, it wouldn’t do you any good.” His basic message was, “We could beat you with one hand tied behind our backs!” (How then will you repel one captain of the least of my master’s servants).
5. (10) Rabshakeh tells them that the LORD God of Israel is on his side.
Have I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? The LORD said to me, ‘Go up against this land, and destroy it.’”
a. Have I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? Rabshakeh saved his best thrust for last: “Admit it, Hezekiah. You know that your God is on my side.”
i. Like all good deception, it would have been easy for Hezekiah and his men to believe this one. After all, hadn’t the Assyrians been wildly successful? Surely, God must be on their side. Didn’t they have the most powerful army? Surely, God must be on their side.
b. The LORD said to me, “Go up against this land, and destroy it”: This was the finishing blow of a brilliant attack. “Hezekiah, God told me to destroy you. I’m just doing His will, and there is nothing you can do to stop it, so you may as well surrender.”
i. Significantly, we can say that Rabshakeh was partially correct! God was with him, and his attack on Judah fulfilled God’s prophesied plan! In conquering Syria, in conquering Israel, and in bringing Judah to the brink, the Assyrians did the will of God! God prophesied that all this would happen (Isaiah 8:3-4, 7:16-17 and many other passages in Isaiah). He allowed it to happen so His prophesied plan would be fulfilled.
ii. However, we should never think that God tempted an innocent man with an evil plan. In fact, even though God predicted and planned this invasion of the Assyrians, Rabshakeh may have been lying indeed when he said, “The LORD said to me.” God did not have to do anything special to direct the bloodthirsty, conquest-hungry Assyrians to attack Syria, Israel, and Judah. He simply allowed the Assyrians to carry out the corrupt desires of their evil hearts. Therefore, the Assyrians could never excuse themselves by saying, “We were doing the LORD’s will!” even as Judas could never make that excuse regarding his wicked betrayal of Jesus.
B. Rabshakeh speaks directly to the people of Jerusalem.
1. (11-12) Hezekiah’s men ask Rabshakeh to speak only to them.
Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; and do not speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to your master and to you to speak these words, and not to the men who sit on the wall, who will eat and drink their own waste with you?”
a. Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it: We can just imagine how difficult this was for these leaders in Hezekiah’s government. They must have thought, “It’s bad enough we have to hear this. But since he is speaking in Hebrew, everyone will hear, and soon the people will become so discouraged they will rise up against us and make us surrender!”
b. Has my master sent me to your master and to you to speak these words, and not to the men who sit on the wall: Rabshakeh doesn’t care if the common citizens of Jerusalem hear him. That’s how he wants it! The more fear, discouragement, and despair he can spread, the better.
c. Who will eat and drink their own waste: Rabshakeh pointed forward to what conditions would be like in Jerusalem after an extended siege. He wanted this to disgust everyone who heard it, and he wanted to magnify the sense of fear, discouragement, and despair.
2. (13-20) Rabshakeh’s speech to the people of Jerusalem.
Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out with a loud voice in Hebrew, and said, “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; nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”’ Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Indeed, have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’”
a. Then Rabshakeh stood and called out with a loud voice in Hebrew: Saying “don’t do that” to Rabshakeh was like saying it to a naughty child. He couldn’t wait to speak to the people of Jerusalem.
b. Hear the words of the great king: Rabshakeh’s speech was intended to glorify the enemy facing God’s people.
c. Do not let Hezekiah deceive you: Rabshakeh’s speech was intended to make God’s people doubt their leaders.
d. Nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD: Rabshakeh’s speech was intended to build fear and unbelief in God’s people.
e. For thus says the king of Assyria: “Make peace with me by a present and come out to me, and everyone one of you will eat from his own vine”: Rabshakeh’s speech was intended to make surrender an attractive option.
f. Until I come and take you away to a land like your own land: Here, Rabshakeh refers to the policy of “ethnic cleansing” and “forced resettlement” practiced by the Assyrians. When they conquered a people, they forcibly resettled them in faraway places, to keep their spirits broken and their power weak. Rabshakeh’s speech was intended to make this terrible fate seem attractive.
g. Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Rabshakeh’s speech was intended to destroy their trust in God. His message is simple, and cunning in its Satanic logic: “The gods of other nations have not been able to protect them against us. Your God is just like one of them and can’t protect you either.”
i. For anyone who had the spiritual understanding to see it, Judah could have started planning the victory party right then. It is one thing to speak against Judah, its people and leaders. It was another thing altogether to mock the LORD God of Israel this way and count Him as “just another god.”
ii. Typical of the work of the enemy of our souls, Rabshakeh was going well until he simply overstepped his bounds. There was no way God would let him off the hook for this one. He has offended the LORD God in a way he will soon regret.
3. (21-22) The response of the leaders in Hezekiah’s government and the citizens of Jerusalem.
But they held their peace and answered him not a word; for the king’s commandment was, “Do not answer him.” Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh.
a. But they held their peace and answered him not a word: They didn’t try to argue with Rabshakeh. Often, it is useless – if not dangerous – to try and match wits with this demonic logic. How much better to keep silent and trust God, instead of trying to win an argument.
i. “Silence is our best reply to the allegations and taunts of our foes. Be still, O persecuted soul! Hand over thy cause to God. It is useless to argue, even in many cases to give explanations. Be still, and commit thy cause to God.” (Meyer)
b. For the king’s commandment was, “Do not answer him”: King Hezekiah was wise enough to make this command, and his officials and the people were wise enough to obey him.
c. Came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn: Though they were silent, they were still deeply affected by this attack. It didn’t just roll off their backs as if it were nothing. They have the same experience Paul described in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. Things were hard, but the battle was not lost yet.
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org