GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY Isaiah 36–39
“I will put My hook in your nose and My bit in your mouth, and I will make you return by the way you came” (Isa. 37:29).We can have every confidence that the biblical vision of history’s end will come to pass. The past demonstrates that God truly is in charge of events, despite the pretentions of this world’s great men.
Sennacherib’s forces invaded Judah in 701B.C Assyrian annals report that he laid siege to 46 walled cities and forts, and “shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem like a bird in its cage.” Jerusalem seemed sure to fall. But, as these chapters relate, the Assyrian forces suddenly withdrew, and the city was saved. Why are these historical chapters inserted here, between two collections of Isaiah’s prophecies? In the first 35 chapters of this greatest of Old Testament prophetic works, Isaiah proclaimed God’s sovereignty. He announced that in God’s time the Lord would deliver His people and will punish the pagan nations that had oppressed them. But God’s time, identified as “that day” or “the day of the Lord,” must have seemed distant and even unreal to many in Judah. It’s easy to say God’s dominion extends over this world as well as over the spiritual realm. But as long as expressions of that dominion are relegated to the distant future, there is no proof. But there was proof that Isaiah spoke the truth; proof available in the prophet’s own day! The Assyrians invaded Judah in overwhelming force. Yet when Hezekiah prayed, God through Isaiah promised to deliver Jerusalem—and did! The events reported in Isaiah 36–39 draw together the key themes of the first 35 chapters of Isaiah in such a way as to demonstrate the validity of each! It is these themes and their demonstration that convey God’s personal message to His people, today as well as in Isaiah’s time.
Sennacherib’s delegation called on Judah to surrender rather than trust in God (36:1–22). Isaiah predicted the invasion would be turned back, despite Assyrian threats (37:1–13). Hezekiah prayed (vv. 14–20), and was given specific promises, relayed by Isaiah (vv. 21–38). Hezekiah recovered from a near-fatal illness (38:1–22), but was rebuked for showing Babylonian envoys Judah’s wealth (39:1–8).
Understanding the Text
“On what are you basing this confidence of yours?” Isa. 36:1–22
Sennacherib’s field commander called for Jerusalem’s surrender. Again and again he challenged Hezekiah, who lacked the trained men to serve as cavalry even if the Assyrians would supply the horses! Did they depend on Egypt? Or on God? None of the gods of other peoples were able to protect their lands against Assyria’s military might. “How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” The attitude expressed by the Assyrian commander is that of scoffers through the ages. “God” may exist somewhere “out there.” He may be important to us “bye and bye.” But He is irrelevant now, for He is powerless to act in the material universe. To have confidence in God when facing overwhelming odds makes no sense to such people. Many in Judah undoubtedly felt just this way. As we’ve seen, Isaiah’s ministry was to a people who were “ever hearing, but never understanding” (6:9–10). All his talk about the sovereign power of God, all his promises of future redemption, all his words of warning seemed like nonsense to the majority. “On what are you basing this confidence of yours?” As events unfolded, it became clear that Isaiah’s and King Hezekiah’s confidence was rightly placed—in God. These chapters remind us. There are no circumstances we can imagine which can limit God’s power to save. “Do not be afraid of what you have heard” Isa. 37:1–13. Hezekiah asked Isaiah for a word from God, and received it. But the Assyrians continued to bombard the king with threats and ridicule. Forty-six of Judah’s forts had fallen to Assyria. Why should Jerusalem be different? “God” is a nice notion, a comforting concept. But the Assyrians possessed the greatest military force the world had known. No “god” had ever been able to resist Assyria’s forces. It’s strange, but most Christians find it easier to withstand open hostility than ridicule. When people rage at our faith in God, we resist. But when people laugh at our beliefs, many believers crumble. Hezekiah responded in exactly the right way. Rather than crumble or feel shame, he went directly to God and said, “Lord, they’re ridiculing You.”This is the key that frees us to stand before any ridicule from our contemporaries. We need to realize that others are not scoffing at us, but at God. We need to turn to Him, seeing Him as “God over all the kingdoms of the earth,” who “made heaven and earth.” And we need to say, “Lord, they’re insulting You.”How does this enable us to stand? It reminds us of who our God is, and how foolish scoffers are. And it shifts responsibility to respond to ridicule away from us, to God Himself. Like Hezekiah, we can then wait patiently for Him to act. “He will not . . . shoot an arrow here” Isa. 37:21–38. God’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer was a specific promise. The vast Assyrian army was just a few miles away from Jerusalem. Yet not only would Sennacherib be barred from the city, his soldiers would not even be permitted to fire a single arrow over Jerusalem’s walls! Then God intervened, and the Assyrian army suffered a vast number of mysterious deaths in a single night. Greek historian Herodotus, writing hundreds of years later, reports a garbled account of the event that he learned while visiting Egypt. Suddenly even the most dull of Judah’s people must have realized it. God is not irrelevant at all! God is sovereign. Every word from His mouth is as certain to be fulfilled as if it had already come to pass (vv. 36–37). “I have heard your prayer” Isa. 38:1–22. God is master of the fate of nations. But is this sovereign God concerned with the fate of individuals? Isaiah now included a report of Hezekiah’s struggle with a fatal illness. The heartbroken king begged God for added years of life, pleading that “I have walked before You faithfully and with wholehearted devotion.” God answered this prayer, and promised Hezekiah 15 added years. The story is placed here in part because it shows that God is concerned with each person. But more importantly, it shows that the plea of a righteous person can turn aside divine judgment, even after that judgment has been announced (cf. v. 1). This has been one of the major themes of Isaiah 1–35. Despite Israel’s sin, God had called again and again for spiritual renewal. Despite predictions of judgment, a heartfelt return to the Lord would bring blessing instead. Hezekiah, Judah’s righteous king, showed the way for his whole land.
A Tough Teacher(Isa. 38–39)
Ray Rubinski, one of the teachers at Gulf High where my wife teaches 11th-grade English, stopped her in the hall one day. Sue was wearing a black skirt, white blouse, and rather severe black bow. “Sue,” Ray said, only half-kidding, “I wish you wouldn’t wear that outfit. It reminds me of the nuns who used to beat my hand with a ruler when I was a kid in Catholic school.” Some of the nuns in old-time parochial schools did have a reputation. I suppose some of them earned it. But if you want to meet a real tough teacher, get introduced to history. Her lessons can change your life. But if you fail to learn from history, you’re really in trouble! Hezekiah teaches us an important history lesson. He listened to Isaiah’s words about God’s sovereignty, and trusted the Lord to remove the Assyrian threat. God did. When Hezekiah became sick, he recalled what God had said through Isaiah about the Lord’s willingness to restore the godly, even after judgment had been announced. So Hezekiah called on God, pleading his godly life. And the Lord did heal, even though He had earlier announced that Hezekiah would die. But then Hezekiah slipped. Isaiah had also spoken of Babylon as an enemy of God’s people. Yet when envoys from Babylon came to “congratulate” the king on his recovery, Hezekiah showed them every one of his royal treasures. A furious Isaiah announced that the day was coming when the Babylonians would carry Hezekiah’s treasures and his descendants into Captivity. What is the lesson in Hezekiah’s personal history? Simply this. We need to take all of God’s words to heart. We can’t just believe the parts we like, and claim the promises we want fulfilled. We need to pay close attention to every message of the Word, for forgetting any words or choosing not to hear can cause us trouble indeed. History is a good teacher. It provides proof that God is real, and is trustworthy. But history is a tough teacher too. If we fail to learn its lessons, we will surely experience its consequences in our lives.
Learn from Hezekiah to pay attention to every word of God.