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The political envoy of Hezekiah takes the news of last chapter’s showdown back to him. When he hears what has happened, he also tears his clothes as his men had done (verse 1). Like his men, Hezekiah is displaying the cultural expression of mourning, symbolic of the severity of the situation, because the people have no choice but to surrender or be killed. He knows there is nothing he can do, except for one thing: go to the temple (verse 1).
He also, finally, does one other thing: he sends his envoy to the prophet, Isaiah (verse 2). But he doesn’t just send the three leaders that he sent out to the Assyrians. He sends all the “elders” and “priests”. This is an envoy of the Priesthood. He has them all dress in sackcloth, a sign of mourning and humility, and sends them to ask the prophet for help.
This emissary of the Priesthood go to the Prophet, and plead with him for help (verse 5). They acknowledge that all of what Isaiah has warned them of is coming true. They say that they know this threat of destruction is because they, as a people, have turned from the Lord. They say that the Assyrians also offend the Lord by daring Him to display His power. They beg both forgiveness for their sins, and also plead for help in defending the Lord’s honor against Assyria. They acknowledge that they can do nothing, and need greater help than themselves – the way a child in the womb cannot make itself be born but is brought forth by the power of the mother’s body (verse 3). They acknowledge that they are not worthy of receiving help from the Lord, but ask for the Lord to defend His name against the offense of the Assyrians (verse 4).
Isaiah is given revelation immediately in response to the Priesthood’s plea, and confirms to them that He has heard the offense the Assyrians have given Him. He tells them not to be afraid of the harsh words of the Assyrians (verse 6).
Do not be afraid.
The Lord says that He will, on behalf of the righteous remnant remaining, deal with this offense. He says that He will send a “blast” upon the Assyrian army (verse 7). He does not say what the “blast” will be, but says it will be so severe that it will cause king Sennacherib to run back to his own land in fear when he hears the report of what has happened. This is the Lord fighting our battles as He has promised, and the comfort of having a prophet to reassure and guide the people by what the Lord reveals to them as a whole (as opposed to our own personal revelation for our own lives).
When Hezekiah’s envoy did not return with an answer, the military envoy from Sennacherib returned to the Assyrian army – which had moved west from Lakchish to Libnah, where they were battling against one of the Canaanite cities belonging to Egypt (verse 8).
The Egyptian pharaoh at this time was actually Ethiopian (Tirhakah, of the 25th Dynasty, see 2 Kings 19), and had come up to help defend Judah according to their alliance. It wasn’t so much that Egypt wanted to honor their alliance as it was they wanted to keep the war in Judah and not let it make come so far as into Egypt. So it was there at Libnah that the Assyrian military envoy delivered the news to Sennacherib about what had happened with Hezekiah’s political envoy at Jerusalem – and that Hezekiah had given no response to their threats (verse 9). In response to this report, and because he was busy fighting at Libnah, Sennacherib sent a letter (verse 14) (so he could keep his military forces with him to fight against Egypt) back to Hezekiah in Jerusalem. This letter said the same thing that the Assyrians had said at the city gates, emphasizing to the people not to let their “god” deceive them into thinking the city could be saved (verse 10) because all other cities conquered by Assyria had been completely destroyed (verse 11). He then again names cities, in case it helps convince the people by being reminded of all the cities that Assyria has taken (verses 12-13): Gozan, off the Euprhates River; Haran, where Abraham had fled and where Rebecca and Rachael and Leah had been born; Reseph, in the south; Telessar, west of the Euphrates; and Hena and Ivah, unknown in today’s geography.
When Hezekiah received this letter from Sennacherib, he was so disturbed by it that he took the letter itself back to the temple, and wept before the Lord (verse 14). The Assyrians were known for being brutal; they skinned people alive, impaled them, dismembered them, and often tortured them to death publicly. This was not just Hezekiah mourning the loss of being king or being sad for having to leave Jerusalem when they were taken captive. He is literally afraid and physically sick when he thinks about how he and the people may be tortured and treated as they are taken captive. Hezekiah knew there was nothing he could do but pray to the Lord (verse 15). He begins his prayer according to the temple pattern (verse 16):
O Lord of hosts,
God of Israel,
that dwellest between the cherubims,
Thou art God…
This is an important piece. The phrase “between the cherubims” refers to the Ark of the Covenant that was kept in the Holy of Holies inside the temple. Upon the ark sat two cherubim, with a space between them, like a “seat” or throne or table-place (see 1 Kings 6:26; 2 Chronicles 3:12). This place was called the “mercy seat”, and it was from here that the Lord’s voice spoke to the priest in the Holy of Holies. It was here that the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled to make atonement for the people (see Leviticus 16:14). It faced east, and is why our temples today align with the east (or west, for those temples east of Jerusalem; the temples don’t align east so much as they align toward Jerusalem). So by addressing God by this description, He is acknowledging God as the one able to make atonement for the people, able to deliver the people, able to be God.
This is important, especially in comparison to Sennacherib’s blasephemy against Jehovah and the false pagan gods that really can do nothing (verse 20). Hezekiah prays to the one true God, declaring that he knows the Lord will hear Him, hear his words, see what is happening, and answer their prayers (verse 17). When praying, Hezekiah also acknowledges the severity of what the people were actually experiencing, including the truth of the Assyrians’ conquest (verse 18). He points out to the Lord that Sennacherib thinks he is more powerful than any of these false gods, but also that these false gods are nothing (so Sennacherib does not have much of a claim) (verse 19). Hezekiah pleads with the Lord, acknowledging that if the Lord intervened on behalf of the people of Judah – even while they are unworthy of His help – especially because they are unworthy of His help, everyone who hears the story will know that the Lord is a true God, with real power, and the people of Judah really are His people (verse 20).
After his time in the temple, king Hezekiah returns to the palace where he receives a letter from Isaiah (written revelation). The letter is a message from the Lord in response to Hezekiah’s prayers in the temple (verse 21). First, the Lord compares Jerusalem to a virgin daughter, not yet touched or attacked by the Assyrians (verse 22). He then confirms to Hezekiah that Sennacherib has conquered other pagan gods because they were nothing, but the Lord Himself is a true God, is the God, is the “Holy One of Israel” (verse 23). Then as evidence that the Lord is God and knows all things, he reveals to Hezekiah some of the military plans that Sennacherib has – and so also reveals the spiritual implications of these conquests (verse 24):
- Just as he blasphemed against the Lord at the gates of Jerusalem, Sennacherib’s army also planned to go to Lebanon and destroy their forests (symbol of longevity of the covenant, or its everlasting-ness);
- Sennacherib also plans to ruin the forests of Mount Carmel (symbol of authority and power of the priesthood); and
- He has already boasted of digging between the Euphrates and Mediterranean (verse 25), ruining the water and diverting it away from cities they had sieged (water being the symbol of the mikveh, or cleansing from sin and the setting apart (as holy) from the rest of the world).
So the Lord reveals not only the pride of Sennacherib and his plans for conquering cities and lands (and how he does it), but also reveals to us the spiritual implications of being “conquered”. This is both the temporal (Aaronic) and spiritual (Melchizedek) layer playing out: the physical conquest of resources upon which cities rely (wood, animals that live there, farms, and water that nourishes them) and the spiritual conquest of causing the people to break covenants and lose access to making covenants, and by so doing cause them to apostasize and so lose the authority and power of the priesthood, even until they lose their status as a people of holiness set apart from the world and cleansed by the power of the atonement.
After explaining this, which is call to Hezekiah to calm down and realize there are greater things at risk than just his physical safety, the Lord directly addresses Sennecherib (verse 26). The Lord points out that Sennecherib knows enough truth to know that the Lord created the earth and all that is on it. He asks Him to consider that if that is true, then how would the Lord not also have the power to prevent or enable these conquests that Sennecherib thinks he has done on his own? The Lord then says, which is important for Sennecherib, that the only reason these conquests were accomplished was because He did not intervene; but then He reveals something that is important for us: that the reason He did not intervene was because the people were weak, and afraid, and overwhelmed, and did not ask for help (verse 27). It had nothing to do with Sennecherib’s power, but rather the lack of power the people had (by not claiming the power available to them). That is very, very important for us to understand.
The Lord then also clarifies something else: just because He did not intervene (because the people did not ask), does not mean He was not paying attention or aware of what was going on (because He was ready and waiting for the people to ask for help, like the prodigal father waiting and watching from a long way off; see Luke 15) (verse 28). The Lord is saying that just because Sennecherib keeps on doing what he is doing, conquering other nations with brutal force and no compassion for the people taken captive, doesn’t mean that he has gotten away with it. Justice will be demanded of everyone, for every choice we have made. The Lord will not intervene when wicked attacks wicked, because these are the natural consequences of wickedness; however, He will fight on behalf of the righteous – and in this case, the righteous of Jerusalem, by way of prophets and the priesthood, have appropriately asked for His help. He is about to deliver some justice, and by their asking for help He is freed to fight their battle. He warns Sennecherib that He will do so in such a way that everyone that hears the story will know it was the Lord who won the battle (verse 29).
In those times when the Lord is so specific, He also gives us information about how we will know this is happening or about to happen. It is more than just information of the timing, with signs given as evidence of the covenant. The people kept their part of the covenant to return to the Lord, and their token of doing so was their repentance, their going through the priesthood and prophets for full repentance, and their pleading for His help in His presence at the temple. In response to this token being given, the Lord gives the sign that will be evidence of Him keeping His part of the covenant, so that the people will know He has heard their prayers and is about to answer them. He tells them there will be a year without crops being planted, and then a year of harvesting what grows on its own, and then a third year where there is planting again (verse 30). This does not just mean three years from now, but in Jewish culture is the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). So the Lord is telling Hezekiah that Sennecherib will be sent away the year after the Year of Jubilee.
As often happens with blessings, the Lord then adds a layer that neither Isaiah nor Hezekiah could yet understand. Even though it has not yet happened, the Lord knows that the Babylonians will try to attack the way the Assyrians have. He promises Hezekiah that if the people will turn to Him, then those people will be a righteous remnant and escape both conquests (verse 31). In fact, He says not only will they escape, but they will “take root” in another land and prosper there. He says that He will warn them and send them out of Jerusalem to a new land to establish a New Jerusalem (verse 32). We know that the righteous people who escaped Jerusalem were Lehi and Ishamael and their families (600 BC) (1 Nephi), and that another righteous group left and took with them Mulek, the son of King Zedekiah (Omni 1:15-16; Mosiah 25:2; Helaman 6:10, 8:21).
In these ways, both literally (Aaronic) by the actual city and spiritually (Melchizedek) by these families, the Lord tells Sennacherib that he will not be able to destroy Jerusalem (verse 33). The Lord then goes so far as to specifically say that not only will Sennacherib not destroy Jerusalem, but he will not even get a chance to attack it because he will run back home before he gets the chance (verse 34). This must have seemed so impossible, both to Hezekiah and Sennacherib! But the Lord declared it to be true, and promised to defend those righteous people – the priesthood holders (and their families) who had appropriately approached Him through the priesthood, by the prophets, and in the Temple (verse 35).
As we know from history, the Lord kept His promise. The Assyrians were camping, ready to attack Jerusalem (but not yet there), and overnight a plague broke out and more than 185,000 soldiers died – in one night! Sennacherib woke the next morning to almost his entire army dead (verse 36). Discussing the Joseph Smith Translation of this verse, Skousen (p. 504) states that it happened this way:
Note that this great destruction was achieved by one or more of the angelic servants of God (the Priesthood beyond the veil) passing among the sleeping Assyrians and calling their spirits to return to the spirit world.
The literal source of power upon which Sennacherib relied, his actual soldiers that made up his military power, was simply “removed” from him by the only one who could do so, by the one God who was real and true and powerful, by the Holy One of Israel. This so terrified Sennacherib, that he literally fled the scene, running back home to his palace in Ninevah (verse 37). But instead of using this opportunity to return to the Lord, Sennacherib returned to his pagan gods, demonstrating his final choice. While worshipping these pagan gods, which he had admitted had no power, two of his sons (jealous for not being chosen as heir) snuck up behind him and ran him through with the sword (verse 38). That was the end of Sennacherib, and the fulfillment of all five prophecies of this chapter:
- The people of Jerusalem had no reason to be afraid (despite the appearance of circumstances) (verse 6);
- The Lord would “blast” the Assyrian armies, blowing them back home (verse 7);
- Sennacherib would run back home with his army (verse 7 and 34);
- Sennacherib would be killed by the sword (verse 7); and
- Jerusalem would not be attacked or conquered (verse 33).