Monday, September 7, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 18

In this chapter, Hezekiah reigns over Judah and faces the threat of the Assyrians.

This chapter begins with some of the best news we have seen since Solomon built the temple.  Verse 3 tells us that Hezekiah is a king just like David and he follows the LORD without reservation.  This is remarkable.  Every king since Solomon had something against them, some area where they did not fully submit to the LORD's leadership.  Even Joash, the last revival king we saw in 2 Kings 12, "did not remove the high places" (2 Kings 12:3).  The kings of Israel are consistently worse, but even the kings of Judah never quite fully extricate themselves from the idolatry that permeates their society, which is physically symbolized by the "high places", the hilltops where pagan priests would lead the people of Israel and Judah into worshiping other gods like Baal and the local deities of the area.  Remarkably, Hezekiah breaks free from this influence, tears down the high places, and forces the entire nation to worship the LORD.

What makes this even more remarkable is that Hezekiah is the son of Ahaz, who in 2 Kings 16 brought Judah into some of the greatest spiritual darkness that they have ever seen.  Ahaz built an altar to another god and placed it in the temple courtyard and instituted Baal worship throughout the nation.  It's shocking to see such a remarkably evil, idolatrous father produce such a remarkably faithful, devoted son, where the father served Baal and the son served the LORD.  Once again I find myself asking, "where did Hezekiah's faith come from?"  Was he not raised by his father into the worship of Baal?  Was he not corrupted by the pagan influences in Judah's society and culture to follow these other gods?  How did Hezekiah persevere through the formative years of his childhood and become such a man after God's heart?  As a sign of the corruption in Judah, even the bronze serpent that the LORD made to deliver Israel from the "fiery serpents" (Num 21:6-9) itself became an idol and had to be destroyed.  Isn't it amazing how God's previous acts of deliverance could become the idols of a future generation?  They worshiped God's tools, his creation, rather than the creator; they worshiped the act of salvation rather than the savior.  I think this is a grim warning to our hearts, that we keep our minds and emotions fixed on the one who saves.  We need to remember the things that God has done, and God ordains many memorials of his past salvation; but we need to stay focused on the God who performed those things rather than honoring the memorials themselves.  It is God who makes them sacred.

I asked similar questions about Abraham (who came from an idolatrous society), Moses (who was raised in the Egyptian royal court) and many others.  How did they men come by such great faith?  This is more than a historical question to me: I want to learn how to live like these people, and foremost in my mind is that I want to learn how to become like them so that in turn I can emulate the deeds that they performed.  Unfortunately, the histories of these men's lives do not give us a thorough answer.  As it regards Hezekiah, we know very little about his childhood or life before ascending to the throne, by which time he had already cultivated a significant faith in God.  With all that in mind, what we do get to read is how Hezekiah reacted to the circumstances of his reign, and hopefully we can learn how to follow God to studying Hezekiah's example.

In 2 Kings 16:7, Judah had sworn to serve the Assyrians in exchange for protection from Israel and Aram.  This is the context for verse 7 of this chapter which tells us that Hezekiah revolted against Assyria, most likely meaning that he stopped paying tribute to Assyria and would resist the Assyrians if they moved an army through Judah's territory.  This chapter does not give us any indication if Hezekiah's revolt was at the LORD's command or Hezekiah's own idea.  What we do know is that Hezekiah sought to follow the LORD, so we can reasonably expect that the LORD will protect Hezekiah and deliver him from any challenges to his rule.

After smashing through Israel, destroying Samaria and deporting the Israelites to foreign lands, the king of Assyria next marches upon Judah and captures many of their towns.  Even though Israel and Judah are about the same in terms of military capabilities, the king of Judah is devoted to the LORD and the king of Israel was not.  Israel was destroyed because (as verse 12 tells us) they had not obeyed the covenant.  Hezekiah's obedience to God's covenant will be his salvation even when his army stands no chance against the Assyrians.

Verse 14 tells us that Sennacherib sent a message to Hezekiah from the town of Lachish, which is a major city in Judah.  This is interesting because in the British Museum in London there is an artifact called the Lachish relief, which is a carved stone mural taken from the ancient Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh.  This mural depicts the Assyrian siege of Lachish, the battles, breaking through the city wall and the subsequent deportation into slavery and execution of the survivors.  It was most likely created by Sennacherib as a celebration of his victory over Judah at Lachish.  Of course, since it is basically Assyrian propaganda, it is only natural that the king would laud his own victory at Lachish and omit his subsequent failure to capture Jerusalem (which we will observe in the next chapter), but I nevertheless find the Lachish relief to be remarkably congruent with the biblical text here.

Even though Hezekiah follows the LORD, I see verse 16 as a continuation of the general trend of decline that we see in Judah.  Previous kings had taken away the golden shields and at various times emptied out the temple treasuries.  Now we once again see a king of Judah pilfering the temple to bribe a foreign king.

Between v. 16 and 17 I can only imagine that there must be some gap of time.  In v. 16 Hezekiah is paying off Sennacherib with gold and silver, and in the very next verse the Assyrian army is once again marching upon Jerusalem, which seems contradictory.  I could be wrong in my interpretation here, but I would guess that Sennacherib marched against Lachish, took the bribe from Hezekiah, and then after Hezekiah perhaps revolted a second time, has sent an army back down to assail Jerusalem.

This is a pivotal moment in Judah's history: if Jerusalem had been captured here, Judah would have been most likely destroyed in the same way as Israel and probably also deported.  Given that Israel never returns from the Assyrian exile, this could have been the end for Judah as well, and then we would not have had a nation of Israel in the times of Jesus nor would we have modern-day Jews.  This could have been the end for all twelve tribes of Israel.  But instead, we need to view these events in light of the covenant and God's promise that he would keep a lamp for David (1 Kings 15:4, 2 Kings 8:19), a burning light as a memorial.  God responds to David's faithfulness with his own faithfulness, preserving this city in David's memory, but also as a token of his promise to Abraham and even more significantly, because it was through the people of Israel that God planned to bring salvation to all the people on the earth.

The author of Kings devotes two chapters to this story for good reason: this could have been the end for Judah, were it not for God's present salvation for them and plans for a future salvation for all of us.

Interestingly, most of these chapters is not devoted to fighting or scenes of battle, but actually just a lot of talking.  In this chapter, we see Sennacherib's commander threatening the people of Judah, and in the next chapter we see God's response.  It's not like physical battles didn't happen: we know that the Assyrians captured Lachish for instance.  But the author of Kings decided to focus on these speeches instead, because he's trying to make a point: this conflict is primarily a spiritual conflict, not a military conflict.  The results of the physical battle are simply an outflow of the spiritual battle.

A point I would like to reiterate here is the basic assumption in the text that each nation or ethnic group has its own dedicated god and that the results of a military conflict depend on whose god is stronger.  This is a point I have made at least once before, and in this chapter we can see it very clearly in verses 32-35, where the Assyrian officer phrases previous conflicts as if they were conflicts between the king of Assyria and the gods of all these different nations.

There are little details that we can parse out of the speech as well, for instance the hostility between Assyria and Egypt in v. 21, and how the Assyrians and perhaps even the men of Judah thought that they could worship the LORD on the high places (even though it was contrary to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy and the high places were predominantly pagan worship sites).  In verse 25, the king of Assyria falsely claims to have the LORD's support for destroying Jerusalem.

On the whole, there is basically a lot of deceit and misinformation in the officer's speech from verses 19-25, because obviously his intention is to demoralize the city's defenders.

Verse 32 is particularly ironic because the Assyrian commander (Rabshakeh) paints exile as "choosing life".  The phrase "choose life and not death" is perhaps a standard covenantal term, because it is almost identical to Deuteronomy 30:19 when Moses said basically the same thing.  It's possible the author of Kings is making a deliberate allusion to Deuteronomy, but I think it's even more likely that it is some sort of standard covenantal/treaty language that would have been in broad use in their society.

Anyway, the reason why I say that's ironic is because the officer is trying to convince the men of Jerusalem, in the most polite and idealistic way possible, to choose to be exiled out of their homeland.  He does this by claiming that they would have independence (eating from one's own tree) and prosperity (a land of olives and honey), much like what God promised Israel when he brought them into the promised land.  This once again positions the Assyrian offer as a covenantal term, basically offering the men of Judah to save their lives by agreeing to move to a foreign land and serve the Assyrians, similar to how the people of Israel moved to the promised land in order to serve God.  This is basically positioning the Assyrian empire to usurp God's place as lord over Israel and I can tell you right now that the Assyrians were not as good of a master as the Lord God.

The chapter ends with mourning, and in the next chapter we will see God's response through a new character, the prophet Isaiah.

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