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Isaiah 36–39 is less a historical excursus than the hinge on which the book turns. To change the metaphor, these chapters constitute the bond that holds together the two large parts on either side. Not only do they provide the historical setting of much of the book (especially of many of the first thirty-five chapters), they put in historical form the fundamental question the book addresses: whom shall we trust? Or, in the pagan outlook of Sennacherib’s field commander, “On whom are you depending?” (Isa. 36:5). Isaiah 36 begins the drama.
King Hezekiah had led the nation in anti-Assyrian rebellion and then looked to Egypt for help. Sennacherib of Assyria was not in a forgiving mood. Proud of his unbroken string of successes (Isa. 36:18–20), Sennacherib determined to crush Jerusalem and teach an unforgettable lesson. He captured town after town in Judah, until only two were left, Lachish and Jerusalem. Here we find Sennacherib’s field commander trying to undermine the remaining forces, speaking in the Hebrew the people of Jerusalem would understand instead of in his own Aramaic (Isa. 36:11–12).
Perhaps what we should observe most closely from this chapter is the example of Satanic half-truths, the methods of sowing doubt, the arguments calculated to diminish faith in the living God. Know your enemy, not least his lies, and he is diminished and less credible. So here are his weapons:
Much of the speech is raw taunt. By this point, Judah was so desperately short of warriors that even if Sennacherib had provided the horses, Hezekiah could not have provided the men (Isa. 36:8). The field commander insists he is here at the Lord’s command (Isa. 36:10)—which was of course partially true and even resonated with Isaiah’s own teaching (Isa. 10:5). Yet it was totally false in any sense that presupposed Assyria was the Lord’s obedient servant as opposed to an instrument used in the mystery of providence. A conscious attempt to undermine the confidence of the people in Hezekiah (Isa. 36:13–15) is finally met only by silence (Isa. 36:21), but the psychological damage must have been considerable. Even the threat of deportation to a strange land is made to sound like a jolly good move to a better location (Isa. 36:16–17)—a bit like making sin delightful and hiding the shame, loneliness, and death. Of course, if Yahweh can be reduced to the status of pagan deities, it will be easier to dismiss him (Isa. 36:18–19). And if the field commander misunderstands the significance of Hezekiah’s destruction of pagan shrines (Isa. 36:7), nevertheless he is probably right in sensing the disaffection of many of the people.
What similar lies and half-truths do powerful voices in our society endlessly repeat so as to demoralize the people of God?
Deuteronomy 8 provides an important theological perspective on the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Because God is a personal God, one can tell the story of those years in terms of the interaction between God and his people: he meets their need, they rebel, he responds in judgment, they repent — and then the cycle repeats itself. On the other hand, one can look at the whole account from the perspective of God’s transcendent and faithful sovereignty. He remains in charge. That is the vantage offered here.
Of course, God could have given them everything they wanted before they had even bothered to articulate their desires. He could have spoiled them rotten. Instead, his intention was to humble them, to test them, even to let them hunger before eventually feeding them with manna (Deut. 8:2-3). The purpose of this latter exercise, Moses insists, was that God might teach them “that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). More generally: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deut. 8:5).
Why all this discipline? The sad reality is that fallen people like you and me readily fixate on God’s gifts and ignore their Giver. At some point, this degenerates into worshiping the created thing rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25). God knows that is Israel’s danger. He is bringing them into a land with agricultural promise, adequate water, and mineral wealth (Deut. 8:6-9). What likelihood would there be at that point of learning that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD”?
Even after these forty years of discipline, the dangers will prove enormous. So Moses spells the lessons out to them. Once the people have settled in the Promised Land and are enjoying its considerable wealth, the dangers will begin. “Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees” (Deut. 8:11). With wealth will come the temptation to arrogance, prompting the people to forget the Lord who brought them out of slavery (Deut. 8:12-14). In the end, not only will they value the wealth above the words of God, they may even justify themselves, proudly declaiming, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8:17) — conveniently forgetting that even the ability to produce wealth is a gracious gift from God (Deut. 8:18).
In what ways does your life show you cherish every word that comes from the mouth of God, above all the blessings and even the necessities of this life?
8:1 “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word1 that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you. 6 So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.
91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say1 to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge2—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
36:1 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 2 And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh1 from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer's Field. 3 And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.
4 And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? 5 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? 6 Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. 7 But if you say to me, “We trust in the LORD our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar”? 8 Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. 9 How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master's servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? 10 Moreover, is it without the LORD that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The LORD said to me, “Go up against this land and destroy it.”’”
11 Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” 12 But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?”
13 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD by saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” 16 Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me2 and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 17 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18 Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20 Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’”
21 But they were silent and answered him not a word, for the king's command was, “Do not answer him.” 22 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh.
6:1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart1 of wheat for a denarius,2 and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers3 should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave4 and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”