Isaiah 37 – Assyria Destroyed, God Glorified
A. King Hezekiah seeks the Lord.
1. (1-5) Hezekiah’s immediate reaction upon hearing the words of Rabshakeh.
And so it was, when King Hezekiah heard it, that he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. Then he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests, covered with sackcloth, to Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz. And they said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah: ‘This day is a day of trouble and rebuke and blasphemy; for the children have come to birth, but 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 reproach the living God, and will rebuke the words which the Lord your God has heard. Therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’” So the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah.
a. When King Hezekiah heard it…he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth: The tearing of clothes and the wearing of sackcloth (a rough, burlap-type material) were expressions of deep mourning, usually for the death of a loved one. Hezekiah took this report regarding Rabshakeh seriously, knowing how dedicated they were to the complete conquest of Jerusalem.
i. Hezekiah’s initial reaction is good. He sees the situation for what it really is. Often, when we are in some kind of trial or difficulty, we handle it poorly because we never see the situation accurately. Jerusalem’s situation is desperate, and Hezekiah knows it.
ii. There was good reason for Hezekiah to be so humble before the Lord. “City after city has fallen to Sennacherib and long lines of deportees are already snaking their bitter way into exile – and it is all Hezekiah’s fault! He followed the lunatic policy of rebellion and was bewitched by Egyptian promises. He might as well have sold his people himself. But even when a matter is our own fault we can still pray about it. And the Lord can always be trusted to pity his people.” (Motyer)
b. And went into the house of the Lord: Hezekiah’s second reaction was even better. He did not allow his mourning and grief to spin him into a rejection of the Lord’s power and help. He knew this was a more necessary time than ever to seek the Lord.
i. When it says, went into the house of the Lord, we should not think that it means that King Hezekiah went into the holy place itself, which was forbidden for all except priests. It simply means that Hezekiah went to the courts of the house of the Lord, to seek God in the place which was open to him as a man of Israel.
ii. A previous king of Judah, King Uzziah, saw his life tragically struck when he broke this command of the Lord to stay out of the holy place of the temple. 2 Chronicles 26:16 says, But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. In response, God struck Uzziah with leprosy, and he was an isolated leper until his death.
c. Then he sent Eliakim…Shebna…and the elders of the priests…to Isaiah the prophet: The third thing Hezekiah did was also good. The king sought out the word of the Lord, given through the prophet of the Lord.
d. The children have come to birth, but there is no strength to bring them forth: Hezekiah put these words in the mouth of his messengers to Isaiah to express the total calamity of the situation. This was a proverbial expression for a disaster – a woman so exhausted by labor that she could not complete the birth, so it was likely that both mother and child would die.
e. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh: Hezekiah knew that their only hope was that God would take offense at the blasphemies of Rabshakeh and rise up against him.
f. Therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left: It was as if Hezekiah said, “Isaiah, pray for us. Our nation is devastated by this Assyrian invasion, and Jerusalem alone is left standing. Pray for the remnant that is left.”
2. (6-7) Isaiah’s words of assurance to King Hezekiah.
And Isaiah said to them, “Thus shall you say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Do not be afraid of the words which you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Surely I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.”’”
a. Thus says the Lord: Isaiah was aware he spoke as a prophet of the Lord. Without hesitation, he speaks as if he were speaking for the Lord God of heaven. We can be sure Isaiah did not take this lightly. The fate of the nation, and his entire credibility as a prophet, was riding on what he said.
i. Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, was about to make a bold prediction. His prophecy would be entirely “provable.” It would either happen or it would not happen; Isaiah would soon be known as a true prophet or a false prophet.
b. Do not be afraid of the words which you have heard: Perhaps we can sense the gentlest rebuke in these words from the Lord. “Hezekiah, it is good for you to seek Me so passionately. But the words of Rabshakeh are only words. Do not be afraid of them.”
c. With which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me: How these words must have cheered Hezekiah! Before, he had hoped it may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh…to reproach the living God (Isaiah 37:4). Here, the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying He had indeed heard these words. Now, God was taking it personally.
i. The servants of the king of Assyria: Servants is “a deliberately belittling expression, ‘the king of Assyria’s lads/flunkies’.” (Motyer)
ii. “He calls Rabshakeh and the other officers of the army the slaves or servant boys – we could say the errand boys – of the king of Assyria.” (Bultema)
d. Surely I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land: Here, the Lord God assures Hezekiah that He will indeed deal with Rabshakeh. He has heard his blasphemy and will bring judgment against him.
i. Significantly, in this initial word from the prophet Isaiah, there is no mention of Jerusalem’s deliverance or the defeat of the Assyrian army. God focuses this word against Rabshakeh personally.
3. (8-13) Rabshakeh’s letter to Hezekiah.
Then the Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria warring against Libnah, for he heard that he had departed from Lachish. And the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, “He has come out to make war with you.” So when he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus you shall speak to Hezekiah king of Judah, saying: ‘Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you, saying, “Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” Look! You have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands by utterly destroying them; and shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered those whom my fathers have destroyed, Gozan and Haran and Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, and the king of the city of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah?’”
a. Then the Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria warring against Libnah: This must have seemed to Hezekiah to be the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise through the prophet Isaiah. Rabshakeh left Jerusalem, and Hezekiah must have thought “Now he’ll go back to his own land and be killed, just like the Lord promised. Good riddance! Thank You Lord!”
b. The king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, “He has come out to make war with you”: While Rabshakeh was away, the Assyrians learned that Egyptian troops (under an Ethiopian king) were advancing from the south. This would be the Egyptian intervention Assyria feared, and that many in Judah trusted in. But as Isaiah prophesied, it would amount to nothing (Isaiah 20:1-6 and 30:1-7).
i. “Actually Tirhakah was only a prince at the time, but because he assumed the throne in 690 b.c., the title ‘king’ is used proleptically [in advance].” (Wolf)
c. Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you: Rabshakeh is not in Jerusalem, but that didn’t stop him from trying to build fear, discouragement, and despair in King Hezekiah. He sent a letter to the king of Judah, hoping to defeat him from a distance.
d. Have the gods of the nations: If read with an eye of faith, these must have been trust-building words of Rabshakeh to Hezekiah. In counting the Lord God of Israel among the gods of the nations, Rabshakeh blasphemes the Lord and invites judgment.
4. (14-20) Hezekiah’s prayer.
And 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. Then Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, saying: “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are 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 reproach the living God. Truly, 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 not gods, but the work of men’s hands—wood and stone. Therefore they destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord, You alone.”
a. Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord: Hezekiah did exactly what any child of God should do with such a letter. He took it to the house of the Lord (to the outer courts, not the holy place), and he spread it before the Lord. In this, Hezekiah boldly and effectively fulfilled the later command of 1 Peter 5:7: casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
i. To be in the ministry means that from time to time, you will receive nasty messages from others. What should one do with them? Often, the best thing to do is to simply throw them away, especially if they are anonymous. But if they are to be read and kept, they should be spread…before the Lord. “Lord, show me what there is in this letter that I need to hear. Show me what I need to disregard. Help me to see beyond this person’s sinful manner or tone and see if You have something in this for me.”
ii. One old preacher received a letter with no sender or return address on the envelope. When he opened it, he saw a single piece of paper with only one word: “Fool!” He took it to the pulpit the next Sunday, and said: “I received an unusual letter this week. Never before have I received a letter where the writer signed his name, but forgot to write anything else.”
b. O Lord of hosts: This title for our God essentially means, “Lord of armies.” Hezekiah was in a crisis that was primarily military in nature, so it made sense for him to address the Lord first according to the aspect of God’s nature that was most needful for him. “Lord of armies, send some troops to help us!”
c. God of Israel: This title for God reminded Hezekiah – and the Lord also, in our human way of understanding – that the Lord God was the covenant God of Israel, and that He should not forsake His people.
d. The One who dwells between the cherubim: Here, Hezekiah sees the great majesty of God. Surely, the One who dwells between the cherubim would never allow Rabshakeh’s blasphemies to go unpunished.
e. You are God, You alone: God is a simple title for our Lord, but perhaps the most powerful. If He is God, then what can He not do? If He is God, then what is beyond His control? Hezekiah realizes the most fundamental fact of all theology: God is God, and we are not! God is God, and Rabshakeh or the Assyrians are not!
f. You have made heaven and earth: In recognizing the Lord God as Creator, Hezekiah saw that the Lord had all power and all rights over every created thing. We can almost feel Hezekiah’s faith rising as he prayed this.
g. Incline Your ear, O Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, O Lord, and see: Hezekiah knew very well that the Lord did in fact hear and see the blasphemies of Rabshakeh. This is a poetic way of asking God to act upon what He has seen and heard, assuming that if God has seen such things, He will certainly act.
h. All the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to reproach the living God: In his prayer, King Hezekiah draws the contrast between the living God and the false gods of the nations the Assyrians have already conquered. Those false gods were not gods, but the work of men’s hands – wood and stone, so they were not able to save them from the Assyrians. But Hezekiah prays confidently that the living God will save them, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord, You alone.
B. Isaiah brings the Lord’s answer to King Hezekiah’s prayer and a word to Rabshakeh.
1. (21) The power of Hezekiah’s prayer.
Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Because you have prayed to Me against Sennacherib king of Assyria,
a. Because you have prayed to Me: The glorious answer which fills the rest of the chapter came because Hezekiah prayed. What if he would not have prayed? Then we are to think that no answer would have come, and Jerusalem would have been conquered. Hezekiah’s prayer really mattered. How many blessings, how many victories, how many souls saved for Jesus’ glory, lie unclaimed in heaven until the Lord can say, because you have prayed to Me?
2. (22-35) The Lord’s word to Rabshakeh.
This is the word which the Lord has spoken concerning him:
“The virgin, the daughter of Zion,
Has despised you, laughed you to scorn;
The daughter of Jerusalem
Has shaken her head behind your back!
Whom have you reproached and blasphemed?
Against whom have you raised your voice,
And lifted up your eyes on high?
Against the Holy One of Israel.
By your servants you have reproached the Lord,
And said, ‘By the multitude of my chariots
I have come up to the height of the mountains,
To the limits of Lebanon;
I will cut down its tall cedars
And its choice cypress trees;
I will enter its farthest height,
To its fruitful forest.
I have dug and drunk water,
And with the soles of my feet I have dried up
All the brooks of defense.’
Did you not hear long ago
How I made it,
From ancient times that I formed it?
Now I have brought it to pass,
That you should be
For crushing fortified cities into heaps of ruins.
Therefore their inhabitants had little power;
They were dismayed and confounded;
They were as the grass of the field
And the green herb,
As the grass on the housetops
And grain blighted before it is grown.
But I know your dwelling place,
Your going out and your coming in,
And your rage against Me.
Because your rage against Me and your tumult
Have come up to My ears,
Therefore I will put My hook in your nose
And My bridle in your lips,
And I will turn you back
By the way which you came.”’
This shall be a sign to you:
You shall eat this year such as grows of itself,
And the second year what springs from the same;
Also in the third year sow and reap,
Plant vineyards and eat the fruit of them.
And the remnant who have escaped of the house of Judah
Shall again take root downward,
And bear fruit upward.
For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant,
And those who escape from Mount Zion.
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,
Nor shoot an arrow there,
Nor come before it with shield,
Nor build a siege mound against it.
By the way that he came,
By the same shall he return;
And he shall not come into this city,”
Says the Lord.
“For I will defend this city, to save it
For My own sake and for My servant David’s sake.”
a. The virgin, the daughter of Zion, has despised you, laughed you to scorn: The idea is that the Assyrians have come to ravish the daughter of Zion, the city of Jerusalem. But God won’t allow it.
i. “Jerusalem is represented as a young girl rebuffing with contempt the unwelcome advances of a churl.” (Grogan)
ii. “Virgin is used here in the sense of being untouched by the marauder. The Assyrian came intent on rape but his victim remains unharmed because you have prayed.” (Motyer)
b. Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? Against whom have you raised your voice, and lifted up your eyes on high? Against the Holy One of Israel: The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, simply says to Rabshakeh, “Do you know whom you are dealing with?” Rabshakeh obviously did not know.
i. Curiously, this prophecy may have never reached the ears of Rabshakeh. After all, Isaiah didn’t exactly have free access to him. But perhaps before his terrible end, God found a way to get this prophecy to him. Or, perhaps God had it for this blasphemer as a special message in hell. At the very least, this prophecy would have been hugely encouraging to Hezekiah and all of Judah, even if Rabshakeh never heard it on this earth.
c. By the multitude of my chariots, I have come up to the height of the mountains: Here, the Lord describes the great pride the Assyrians had in their own conquests. But they forgot that the Lord was really in charge (Now I have brought it to pass, that you should be for crushing fortified cities into heaps of ruins. Therefore their inhabitants had little power). Even if the Assyrians didn’t know it, they owed their success to the Lord.
i. How humbling this must have been for the Assyrians! All along, they thought it was because of their mighty power they had accomplished so much. Here, God makes it plain that it was His power that did it.
d. I know your dwelling place, your going out and your coming in: God knew everything about this enemy, and because Assyria went too far in blaspheming the One who made all their success possible, therefore I will put My hook in your nose…and I will turn you back by the way which you came. This was an especially dramatic statement, because this is exactly how the Assyrians would cruelly march those whom they forced to relocate out of their conquered lands. They would line up the captives, and drive a large fishhook through the lip or the nose of each captive, string them all together and march them. God said to Assyria, “I’m going to do the same thing to you.”
i. You shall eat this year such as grows of itself: “The invasion prevented sowing in 702 b.c., but when the threat lifted in 701 they would find sufficient growth to preserve life; in 701 the withdrawing Assyrians still inhibited agriculture, yet in 700 there would still be enough through ‘chance growth’. Thus the Lord would confirm retrospectively that it was his hand that dispersed the threat.” (Motyer)
e. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant: As much as the Assyrians would like to crush Jerusalem and Judah, they will not be able to. God will preserve His remnant.
f. He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there…. For I will defend this city, to save it for My own sake and for My servant David’s sake: God plainly and clearly draws a line. Although the Assyrian military machine is poised to lay siege to Jerusalem, and ultimately crush them, they won’t. The king of Assyria will not come into this city, because God is defending it.
i. Why does God defend the city? For My own sake. God will defend His own glory. Often, we unnecessarily think that we must defend the glory of the Lord. But that isn’t really the case. God is more than able to defend His own glory.
ii. Why does God defend the city? For My servant David’s sake. King David had died almost 300 years before this, but God still honored His promise to David (2 Samuel 7:10-17). God would defend Jerusalem, not for the city’s sake at all – Jerusalem deserved judgment! But He does it for His own sake, and for the sake of David. In the same way, God the Father defends and blesses us, not for our own sake – we often deserve His judgment! But He often does it for His own sake, and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
3. (36) God strikes down the mighty army of Assyria.
Then the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead.
a. The angel of the Lord went out: Simply and powerfully, God destroys this mighty nation in one night. 185,000 died at the hand of the angel of the Lord. Against all odds, and against every expectation except the expectation of faith, the Assyrian army was turned back without having even shot an arrow into Jerusalem. The unstoppable was stopped, the undefeated was defeated.
i. The prophet Hosea made this same prediction: Yet I will have mercy on the house of Judah, will save them by the Lord their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword or battle, by horses or horsemen. (Hosea 1:7)
ii. “Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded that one night Sennacherib’s army camp was infested with mice (or rats) that destroyed the arrows and shield-thongs of the soldiers. He probably got this tradition from Egyptian sources, and it could well be a somewhat garbled version of the event recorded here.” (Grogan)
b. All dead: This was not difficult for God to do. Far “harder” for the Lord was getting the hearts and minds of His people in the right place. Once they were there, it was nothing for God to dispatch one angel to do this.
4. (37-38) The end of Sennacherib, king of Assyria.
So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh. Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place.
a. Departed and went away: This was exactly as God said he would. But Sennacherib left still full of pride. After this retreat from Judah, Sennacherib commissioned a record, which is preserved in the spectacular Annals of Sennacherib (the Taylor Prism), which can be seen in the British Museum. It shows how full of pride Sennacherib’s heart still was, even if he did not conquer Jerusalem.
i. “I attacked Hezekiah of Judah who had not subjected himself to me, and took forty-six fortresses, forts and small cities. I carried away captive 200,150 people, big and small, both male and female, a multitude of horses, young bulls, asses, camels, and oxen. Hezekiah himself I locked up in Jerusalem like a bird in its cage. I put up banks against the city. I separated his cities whose inhabitants I had taken prisoners from his realm and gave them to Mitiniti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Zilbel, king of Gaza and thus diminished his country. And I added another tax to the one imposed on him earlier.” (Cited in Bultema)
ii. “The Biblical account concludes with the much-debated statement that the Assyrian army was struck down in some way during the night with considerable loss of life, following which the siege was called off…. The Assyrian Annals tacitly agree with the Biblical version by making no claim that Jerusalem was taken, only describing tribute from Hezekiah.” (T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum)
b. Now it came to pass: Between Isaiah 37:37 and Isaiah 37:38, some 20 years passed. Perhaps Sennacherib thought he had escaped the judgment of God, but he hadn’t. He met the bitter end of death at the end of swords held by his own sons.
i. An old Jewish legend – and nothing more than a legend – says how it was that Sennacherib’s sons came to kill him. Sennacherib was troubled at how God seemed to bless the Jews so much and tried to find out why. Someone told him it was because Abraham had loved God so much that he was willing to sacrifice his son to the Lord. Sennacherib thought he would be even more favored by God, and decided to kill two of his sons in sacrifice to the Lord, becoming even more blessed than Abraham and his descendants. But his two sons learned of the plan, and killed him before he could kill them, thus fulfilling the word of the Lord.
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org