Isaiah 36 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 36
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them.

(1) It came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah . . .—In the judgment of nearly all Assyriologists (Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sayce, Hinckes, Lenormant, Schrader, Cheyne), we have to rectify the chronology. The inscriptions of Sennacherib fix the date of his campaign against Hezekiah in the third year of his reign (B.C. 700), and that coincides not with the fourteenth, but with the twenty-seventh year of the king of Judah. The error, on this assumption, arose from the editor of Isaiah’s prophecies taking for granted that the illness of Hezekiah followed on the destruction of Sennacherib’s army, or, at least, on his attack, and then reckoning back the fifteen years for which his life was prolonged from the date of his death. Most of the scholars named above have come to the conclusion that the illness preceded Sennacherib’s campaign by ten or eleven years, and this, of course, involves throwing back the embassy from Babylon (Isaiah 39) to about the same period. Lenormant (Manual of Ancient History, 1:181) keeping to the Biblical sequence, real or apparent, of the events, meets the difficulty by assuming that Hezekiah reigned for forty-one instead of twenty-nine years, and that Manasseh was associated with him in titular sovereignty even from his birth, and the fifty years of his reign reckoned from that epoch.

Sennacherib king of Assyria.—According to the Assyrian inscriptions, the king succeeded Sargon, who was assassinated in his palace, B.C. 704, and after subduing the province of Babylon which had rebelled under Merôdach-baladan, turned his course southward against Hezekiah with four or five distinct complaints—(1) that the king had refused tribute (2 Kings 18:14); (2) that he had opened negotiations with Babylon and Egypt (2 Kings 18:24) with a view to an alliance against Assyria; (3) that he had helped the Philistines of Ekron to rise against their king who supported Assyria. and had kept that king as a prisoner in Jerusalem (Records of the Past, i. 36-39).

And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field.
(2) The king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh.—The word is a title (the Rabshakeh) probably the chief officer or cup-bearer. In 2 Kings 18; 2 Chronicles 32, we have the previous history of the war. Hezekiah, on hearing Sennacherib’s reproach, began to strengthen the fortifications of Jerusalem, called his officers and troops together, and made an appeal to their faith and courage. In Isaiah 22 we have the prophet’s view of those preparations. Probably by Isaiah’s advice, who put no confidence in this boastful and blustering courage, Hezekiah sent to Sennacherib, who was then besieging Lachish, to sue for peace, acknowledging that he had offended. A penalty of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold was imposed and paid, Hezekiah being reduced to empty his own treasury and that of the Temple, and even to strip the Temple doors and pillars of the plates of gold with which they were overlaid. Peace, however, was not to be had even at that price. Encouraged, perhaps, by this prompt submission, and tearing up the treaty (the breach of covenant of which Isaiah complains in Isaiah 35:1), Sennacherib sent his officers, the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh (the names are all official titles) to demand an unconditional surrender.

He stood by the conduit of the upper pool.—The spot was the same as that at which Isaiah had addressed Ahaz thirty or more years before (Isaiah 7:3). It was probably chosen by the Rabshakeh as commanding one end of the aqueduct which supplied the city with water, and thus enabling him to threaten that he· would cut off the supply (Isaiah 36:12).

Then came forth unto him Eliakim, Hilkiah's son, which was over the house, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, Asaph's son, the recorder.
(3) Eliakim.—It is significant that Eliakim now fills the office which, a short time before, had been filled by Shebna, while the latter is reduced to the inferior position of a scribe (Isaiah 22:15-25). The change is clearly traceable to Isaiah’s influence. The “scribe” was the secretary who formulated despatches and degrees; the “recorder,” probably the registrar of the official annals.

And Rabshakeh said unto them, Say ye now to Hezekiah, Thus saith the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this wherein thou trustest?
I say, sayest thou, (but they are but vain words) I have counsel and strength for war: now on whom dost thou trust, that thou rebellest against me?
(5, 6) I have counsel and strength for war . . .—Reports of Hezekiah’s speech. probably also of his negotiations with Egypt, had reached the ears of the Assyrian king. So Sennacherib. in his inscriptions, speaks of “the king of Egypt as a monarch who could not save those who trusted in him” (Smith, Assyrian Canon). The Pharaoh in this case was Shabatoka, or Sabaco II., the father of the Tir-hakah of Isa xxxvii 9, one of the Ethiopian dynasty that reigned in Egypt from B.C. 725-665.

Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him.
But if thou say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar?
(7) Is it not he, whose high places . . .—This was this impression left on the mind of the Rabshakeh by what he heard of Hezekiah’s reformation. From the Assyrian stand-point a god was honoured in proportion as his sanctuaries were multiplied, but wherever he went, the Rabshakeh had found “high places “where Jehovah had been worshipped, which Hezekiah had desecrated. How could one who had so acted hope for the protection of his God?

Now therefore give pledges, I pray thee, to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give thee two thousand horses, if thou be able on thy part to set riders upon them.
(8) Now, therefore, give pledges.—Better, make a wager. This would seem to be a taunt interpolated by the Rabshakeh in the midst of his official message. There was something absurd in the idea of Judah coming out as strong in its cavalry. Had they two thousand men who could manage their horses if they had them?

How then wilt thou turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master's servants, and put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.
(10) Am I now come up without the Lord . . .—The words may be simply an empty boast. Possibly, however, Isaiah’s teaching that it was Jehovah who brought the King of Assyria into Judah, and used him as an instrument (Isaiah 7:17-18), had become known, or Sennacherib may have dreamt, or have said that he had dreamt, that the God of Judah, irritated with the destruction of the high places, had given him this mission. He assumes the character of a defender of the faith. The inscriptions of Sennacherib are, it may be noted, conspicuous for like assertions. He delights, apparently, to claim a Divine sanction for the wars in which he is engaged (Records of the Past, i. 25, 9:23).

Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews' language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.
(11) Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants . . .—The king’s officers, knowing the “little faith” of their people, are not, perhaps, without misgivings of their own. Might not the townsmen, listening eagerly on the wall, recognise in Rabshakeh’s words an echo of Isaiah’s, and lose courage, as feeling that they were fighting against the God who was chastising them? The Syrian or Aramaic was a common ground for the ambassadors on both sides, as being the language of commerce and diplomacy. Rabshakeh, it would seem, could speak three languages, Assyrian, Syrian, and Hebrew; Hezekiah’s ministers the two latter; the “people on the wall” only the last.

In the Jews’ language.—It is uncertain whether this means simply Hebrew, which Isaiah elsewhere calls the language of Canaan (Isaiah 19:18), or a special dialect of Judah. The Moabite stone, on the one hand, shows that Hebrew was the common speech of Palestine and the border countries. On the other hand, dialects spring up quickly. Nehemiah 13:24 is the only other passage (the parallels of 2 Kings 18:26 and 2 Chronicles 32:18 excepted) in which the term meets us in the narrower sense, and that is after the exile.

But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?
(12) Hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall . . .?—The words, which in their brutal coarseness have hardly a parallel in history, till we come to Bismarck’s telling the Parisians that they may “stew in their own gravy,” imply that the Assyrians were in a position to cut off the supplies both of food and water.

Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews' language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria.
Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you.
Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.
(15, 16) Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord . . .—Rabshakeh had apparently heard from spies or deserters of Hezekiah’s speech to his people (2 Chronicles 32:7-8). In contrast with what he derides as trust in a God who was against those who trusted Him, he offers tangible material advantages They have only to leave the besieged city, and to go to the Assyrian camp, and they will be allowed provisionally to occupy their own houses and till their own fields, and, instead of dying of thirst, shall have each man the waters of his own cistern; and then, not without a latent sarcasm, worse than the vœ victis which is the normal utterance of conquerors, he offers the doom of exile as if it were a change for the better, and not the worse, as though the conquered had no love of country as such, no reverence for the sepulchres of their fathers, no yearning for the Temple of their God. The taunt and the promise may, perhaps, be connected with Sennacherib’s boast that he had improved the water-supply of the cities of his empire (Records of the Past, i. 32, 9:23, 26, 28).

Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern;
Until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.
Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, The LORD will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?
(18) Hath any of the gods of the nations . . .—The Rabshakeh speaks in the natural language of polytheism. The Jehovah of Israel was one of gods many and lords many, a simple national deity; but Asshur and Ishtar, the gods of Assyria, were supreme above them all (Records of the Past, i. 25, 33).

Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?
(19) Hamath and Arphad . . .—See Note on Isaiah 10:9. Looking to the practice of the Assyrians, the question would have had for its answer, not the echoing “Where?” which it suggests to modern ears, but “They are to be seen in the Temples of Assyria, as trophies of its victories.”

Sepharvaim.—The southernmost city of Mesopotamia, on the left bank of the Euphrates, probably the same as the “sun-city” Sippara, in which Xisuthros, the Noah of Chaldæan mythology, was said to have concealed the sacred books before the great flood (Records of the Past, vii. 143).

Who are they among all the gods of these lands, that have delivered their land out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?
But they held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king's commandment was, saying, Answer him not.
(21) But they held their peace . . .—Hezekiah seems to have commanded silence, as if distrustful either of the wisdom of the ambassadors or of the effect which any chance words might have upon the garrison and people of Jerusalem. As it was, the only words they had spoken (Isaiah 36:11) had made matters infinitely worse.

Then came Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, that was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder, to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of Rabshakeh.
(22) With their clothes rent.—The act was the natural expression of their horror at the blasphemy of Rabshakeh’s words. (Comp. Matthew 26:65; Acts 14:14.) They would not reply to that blasphemy, and trusted to the effect of this silent protest on the minds of the people who had heard it.

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