CLICK HERE to read Isaiah 36. This chapter and through chapter 39 are historical chapters, covering the history of 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32. It is 701 BC (“the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign”, verse 1), which is after the king of Assyria has conquered the northern Ten Tribes of Israel. Now that king’s son, Sennacherib, is the new king. Judah tried to avoid paying him tribute, making an alliance with Egypt to refuse to pay their taxes. This just provoked Sennacherib to attack them, and so he has begun invading the southern kingdom of Judah. He has already conquered 46 cities and is headed toward Jerusalem.
When Sennacherib gets to Lachish, he knows he is only about 25 miles from Jerusalem (verse 2). When he knows Lachish is about to fall, he sends a military envoy (“Rabshakeh”) to Jerusalem. Sennacherib tries, legitimately, to get the people to surrender without the city having to be destroyed. However, he is being a bully by sending a military envoy instead of a political envoy – meaning that he is expecting a fight. The “upper pool” is the Gihon Spring, just outside the main gates of Jerusalem, where the high walls around the city begin. It means Sennacherib approached the city with an army, demanding entrance or else he would simply destroy Jerusalem.
It was unpleasant for the envoy as much as the people of Jerusalem, as the envoy had to wait in “the fuller’s field”, which smelled badly due to this being the place where cloth was bleached using “alkali, urine, and chalk” (Skousen, p. 486). Worse, Hezekiah would not go out to them, sending instead a political envoy (as opposed to a military envoy) consisting of Eliakim (steward of the king’s household), Shebna (his scribe), and Joah (his historian) (verse 3).
The Assyrian envoy responds by sending these guys back to Hezekiah, warning them that Egypt (reference verse 6) doesn’t have the ability to defend them against Assyria (verse 4). The Assyrians are there to convince Hezekiah to surrender the city, and so begin their arguments trying to make Hezekiah realize he cannot rely on others to help or defend him when Assyria is so powerful (verse 5, see also JST). Like ambassadors in other countries today, the Assyrians know that Judah has sent delegates to Egypt for alliance-making. They tell Hezekiah’s men that Egypt has never successfully helped another country, and depending on them is like leaning on a reed that breaks and then gives you splinters (verse 6).
The Assyrians know enough about Judah that they also know king Hezekiah has been telling the people to trust the Lord (2 Chronicles 32:8). They try to stir contention by stabbing at the apostate Jews who had worshipped false idols and pagan gods, reminding them that it was Hezekiah who tore down all these altars (2 Chronicles 30:14; 2 Kings 18:4) – so what power of “god” could they call on to help them now? The Assyrians are trying to win these people over, saying that if they will surrender then they will be allowed to worship their pagan gods again (verse 7).
Next, the Assyrians try to bribe the people (verse 8). They tell the people that if they will surrender as hostages, the Assyrians will give them horses. They compare this to Egypt, who has thus far done nothing to help them (verse 9). Then, to legitimize this offer (priestcraft and secret combinations), the Assyrians say that they never would have come to war against Judah if they were not sent by “the Lord” (verse 10). This is interesting, actually, because they do not actually mean the Jehovah they have just belittled, but are simply referring to pagan gods as is there custom. However, it is also a true statement, as Isaiah has already said that the Lord will use Assyria to deliver consequences to Judah, and then later punish Assyria (by the Babylonians) for their destructive behavior. If they people had listened to Isaiah in the first place, they would have understood this.
Hezekiah’s envoy know that the Assyrians are not really trying to make a political alliance so much as they are trying to stir up the people in surrendering. Outside the gates, where the city walls begin, the people of Jerusalem were crowded high on the walls to listen to what was happening (verse 11). To redirect the Assyrians to legitimate negotiations, instead of allowing them to bully and stir up and trick the people, they ask the Assyrians to speak in the Syrian language instead of Hebrew. But this request only confirmed to the Assyrians that their tactics were working, and so they replied that they were not there to meet the demands of Hezekiah but to make Hezekiah meet the demands of Assyria (verse 12). To emphasize his point, and to keep the people’s attention – both by intimidating them and by impressing them with their worldly power – the Assyrian envoy does the opposite of what Hezekiah’s men asked, using filthy language in Hebrew instead of using the Syrian language the common people would not understand.
After gaining the attention of the people by shocking them, and so also insulting their leaders, the Assyrian envoy then addresses them directly with the message from Sennacherib (verse 13):
- The people should not be deceived by Hezekiah, who could not actually do anything to save them (verse 14);
- The people should not believe the myths that Jehovah do anything to save them (verse 15);
- Resistance would only mean destruction, but submission would mean they could remain in their city and surrounding farmlands (verse 16) until being deported to Assyria as had happened with the northern tribes (verse 17):
- The people should not believe Jehovah could save them because no other “gods” of other lands had been able to protect their people against Assyria, and Assyria had conquered them all (verse 18);
- They should consider some of the other local gods, all of whom were conquered by the Assyrians: Hamath – on the Orontes River in Syria; Arphad – a little further north of Hamath; Sepharvaim – on the Euphrates above Babylon; and Samaria – a slap at Judah because this was the capital of the northern ten tribes (verse 19); and
- They should consider this final question of how could Jehovah save them, when no other god in any other land had been able to save any people from the Assyrians who had conquered all of them (verse 20).
Verse 21 says, But they held their peace, and answered him not a word… This reminds us of when the Savior himself was taunted just before his crucifixion, when the soldiers mocked him and asked questions they really did not actually want answers to and were not spiritually prepared to receive (see Matthew 26:63 and Luke 20:26). We also have the same example in other prophets, and are commanded to do so ourselves – it is better to “hold our peace” and keep the spirit with us, than surrender to contention and lose the help of the Lord (D&C 11:18).
This we must do externally, even if we are quiet upset, hurt, or afraid internally, as we see Hezekiah’s men leave the envoy and take their report back to Hezekiah, ripping their clothes in mourning along the way (verse 22). This was the custom of the people, and a symbol of the severity of the situation, and a display of their emotional response. This is an important piece, because it is a reminder we are NOT commanded to hold everything in and just shove it down deeper and deeper. We are NOT commanded to ignore our emotional response, or deny it, or try to suppress it. We hold our peace in front of the “enemy”, or in the midst of contention, so as not to lose the Spirit. We do not become part of the problem. But when we are safe again (within our “walls”), or with our good counsel, or with our spouses or with whomever we hold council, then it is very important to acknowledge directly what has happened, what it means, and how we feel about it. It is important to hold council, counsel each other, and express our emotions safely and appropriately. This is the point of making sure we have the Spirit with us, so that we can receive that comfort as well as its guidance and instruction for what to do next. This is what the men do as they return to meet with Hezekiah about all that has just happened.