Friday, August 15

Second Kings 16: We come to the reign of Ahaz of Judah (735-715), a period documented, not only in Kings, but also in the Book of Isaiah. During this time, Assyria begins to flex new muscles, with the intent to take charge of the entire Fertile Crescent.

In 752, ten years before Isaiah’s prophetic call, the Assyrian Empire adopts Aramaic, the common language of the Fertile Crescent, as its official language, in addition to the traditional Akkadian. Assyria is about to enlarge its field of influence, and the careers of the kings of Judah and Israel—as well as the prophetic ministry of Isaiah—are set within that geopolitical context.

This was the whole point of the notice at the beginning of the Book of Isaiah: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” These were the years from 742 to 687 before Christ, the absolute high point of Assyrian power. Tiglath Pileser III, who became emperor in 745, just three years before Isaiah’s call, ruled until 727. Other notable emperors of this period were Shalmaneser V (727-722), Sargon II (722-705) and Sennacherib (704-681).

With respect to Assyrian warfare during this second half of the eighth century, the extant art of the period confirms what is described in the Bible; it depicts charioteers breaking through enemy lines that have been decimated by Assyrian archery. Following the chariots comes the infantry, to make certain no one escapes.

An inscription of Sennacherib illustrates this process:

At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane…I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows. Humban-undasha, the commander in chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles…I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage.

The terrain of Mesopotamia largely determined this style of warfare. On the open plain, defensive posturing was not possible. Assyria’s two major cities, Asshur and Nineveh, stood between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which afforded only minimum protection. It was the Assyrian style to “take it to the enemy.” Survival depended on the total destruction of an enemy. We gain some sense of this in Isaiah 5, which gives us a very graphic presentation of the invincible Assyrian might, using a staccato style evocative of a Blitzkrieg:

No one will be weary or stumble among them,

No one will slumber or sleep;

Nor will the belt on their loins be loosed,

Nor the strap of their sandals be broken;

Whose arrows are sharp,

And all their bows bent;

Their horses’ hooves will seem like flint,

And their wheels like a whirlwind.

Their roaring will be like a lion.

In response to this Assyrian threat, Syria and Israel form a military league. Feeling threatened by this coalition, Ahaz of Judah appeals directly to Assyria for help. As the present chapter shows, this appeal simply makes the Kingdom of Judah a mere vassal of Assyria, thus introducing new forms of apostasy and idolatry.

Saturday, August 16

Second Kings 17: We come now to the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the deportation of the Ten Tribes, and the enforced “importation” of foreigners into the Holy Land by the forces of Assyria.

An individual named Hosea (not to be confused with the prophet of that name) assassinated King Pekah and seized the throne in 732 (15:30). In fact, it was Shalmaneser V of Assyria who placed on the throne, making him a vassal of the empire. The record of this development was inscribed in a contemporary document, the Nimrud Tablet, in which Shalmaneser testified, “They deposed Pekah, and I set Hosea over them.”

When Hosea proved treacherous to the Assyrian alliance, however, he was removed from the throne, and the new emperor, Sargon II (722-705), deported great masses of the population to the east; they were never again to return.

Sargon recorded this event in another contemporary (and fragmentary) inscription, the Nimrud Prism: “At the beginning [of my rule . . . the city of the Sa]maritans I . . . who let me achieve victory . . . carried off prisoner.” This partial testimony supports what is said here in Kings: “In the ninth year of Hosea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria” (verse 6). The year was 722, the first year of Sargon’s reign.

Our biblical historian reflects on the theological significance of these sad events, ascribing their cause to the idolatry which had prevailed in Israel since that fateful day in 922 when Jeroboam had revolted against the house of David (verses 7-23). Throughout that whole period, when the Lord “spoke by all his servants the prophets”—Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea—the divine word was treated with insouciance and contempt by the kings and their people.

The Assyrians, following their practice of deporting rebellious populations, not only removed the masses of the Israelites to the east; they also imported eastern peoples into Israel. These intermarried with what was left of the local population, thus creating a hybrid race known in Holy Scripture as the Samaritans. This new race, which followed a different form of the biblical faith (verses 24-28), also continued the infidelities of the earlier Israelites in the land (verses 29-41). In due course they were evangelized, however, by Jesus and the Christian missionaries (cf. John 4 passim; Acts 1:8; 8:4-8).

Sunday, August 17

Second Kings 18: Because of the relatively short life of his hapless father Ahaz, Hezekiah (715–687) was a young man—only twenty-five—when he assumed the throne of Judah.

The new king, moreover, inherited a mess. His kingdom was impoverished by his father’s irresponsibility, and much of the Holy Land lay in ruins from local wars and a recent invasion from afar. Seven years earlier, in 722, the Assyrians had destroyed the kingdom of Israel, to Judah’s north, and then deported the great masses of its people to regions over in the far end of the Fertile Crescent.

Furthermore, Hezekiah well knew that his own father had been the culprit responsible for earlier inviting the Assyrians to interfere in the politics of the Holy Land (2 Chronicles 28:16–21). The problem was part of his father’s own legacy, then, and the new king himself was obliged to pay annual tribute to Assyria, further impoverishing his realm.

Over the next two decades, however, Hezekiah undertook measures toward resisting that ever-looming menace from the east: First, he endeavored to reunite the remnant of Israelites in the north with his own throne in Jerusalem, thus enlarging his realm by restoring the borders of David’s ancient kingdom. In this effort he was somewhat successful (30:1–11).

Second, Hezekiah strengthened Jerusalem’s defenses by cutting an underground conduit through solid rock, so that water could be brought secretly into the city from the Gihon Spring. This remarkable feat of technology, unearthed by modern archeology, is recorded not only twice in the Bible (Second Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30) but also in the contemporary Siloam Inscription. In this effort Hezekiah was very successful.

Prior to either of these efforts, however, Hezekiah initiated a religious reform, convinced that the nation’s recent apostasy under his father Ahaz was the root of Judah’s unfortunate plight. Thus, he began his reign by purifying the temple, lately defiled by pagan worship (2 Chronicles 29:3–19), in order to restore the edifice to the proper service of God (29:20–36).

Unlike the unbelieving Ahaz, who treated a spiritual dilemma as merely a political problem, to be addressed by political means, Hezekiah was determined to regard the spiritual dilemma as exactly what it was.

Indeed, Hezekiah’s programmatic reform maintained the proper priority indicated by our Lord’s mandate that we “seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.” Nothing else in Judah’s national life, Hezekiah believed, would be correctly ordered if anything but the interests of God were put in first place. What was first must emphatically be put first, not second or somewhere else down the line.

Monday, August 18

Second Kings 19: Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria (704-681) seems to have attacked Jerusalem twice, once in 701 and again in 688. The details of these two invasions, it appears, have become somewhat entangled in the three biblical accounts (Second Kings 18—19; Second Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36—37), Josephus (Antiquities 9—10), and Sennacherib’s own record. Historians speak cautiously on this matter, however, and the hypothesis of a double invasion is far from certain. (Indeed, the biblical dating of Hezekiah’s accession to the throne is troublesome [18:1]; few historical difficulties in the biblical text have proved so intractable.)

Certainly there was at least one siege set around Jerusalem—it was impossible to take this elevated city without the effort of a siege. In addition to the biblical testimony on this point, we have the inscription of Sennacherib on the “Taylor Prism” in the British Museum: “But as for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not bow down in submission . . . I shut him up like a bird in a cage in Jerusalem, his capital city. I put guards around it and turned back to his ruin anyone who exited the city gate.”

The besieging general, Rabshakeh (if this was a personal name and not a rank), taunted Hezekiah (18:28-35), who responded by praying in the Temple (verses 1, 14). In this respect, it is instructive to contrast Hezekiah to Saul at an earlier period; faced with a nearly impossible military crisis, Saul panicked, Hezekiah prayed. The words of his prayer are preserved (verses 5-19).

The Prophet Isaiah knows, apparently from the Lord, that the king has been praying, and he responds with a prophecy that encourages Hezekiah to hold fast and continue to trust in divine guidance and help (verses 20-34). This prophecy makes explicit reference to the Lord’s covenant with David. That is to say, the present chapter ties the outcome of this siege to an abiding concern of the biblical author, the inviolability of the Lord’s covenant with the Davidic house. As in those dire days when, for six years, Athaliah usurped the Davidic throne, so in the present threatening situation God remains faithful to His oath to David. Trust in God is not an abstract sense that “things will turn out all right.” It is related to the Lord’s specific promises contained in a covenant form.

The reference to “the angel of the Lord,” who slew the besieging Assyrian army, is theological. Exactly how the angel accomplished this is not specified.

The context of the besiegers’ withdrawal, furthermore, is the recent insurrection of Tirhakah back in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Sennacherib is slain in the insurrection and succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (680-669).

Tuesday, August 19

Second Kings 20: This chapter includes three parts: Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery (verses 1-11), the delegation from Babylon (verses 12-19), and the final assessment of his reign (verses 20-21). It is difficult to date the first two of these components, notwithstanding the specific reference to “fifteen years” in verse 6. Since that same verse seems to presuppose an Assyrian threat, the reader wonders how Hezekiah’s sickness is chronologically related to the events of the previous chapter. None of this is clear.

Isaiah, consulted about the king’s sickness, apodictically foretells his death (verse 1). Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah, like Jonah’s to Nineveh, is unconditional: “you shall die, you shall not recover.” Yet, as the event shows, this prophecy of Isaiah, like that of Jonah, is reversed. Apparently bothered by this paradox, Josephus (Antiquities 10.2.1) omits Isaiah’s first prophecy and narrates only the second, that in verses 5-7).

With respect to Hezekiah’s prayer (verse 3), we observe four things about the king: First, he has walked in God’s presence, like such men as Enoch (Genesis 5:21), Noah (6:9), Abraham and Isaac (48:15), and, of course, David (First Kings 3:6). Second, Hezekiah has walked in “fidelity”—’emeth; that is to say, he has imitated the Lord’s own fidelity. Third, he has walked with his “whole heart”—leb shalem; his internal thought and resolve has had both integrity and proper direction. Fourth, he has done that which is “good”; he has endeavored to follow what God Himself considers to be “good.”

With respect to the medical remedy prescribed by Isaiah, the application of a fig poultice to drain ulcers is mentioned by Pliny (Natural History 22.7) and by two much earlier (second millennium before Christ) Ugaritic texts about veterinary practice.

Since Isaiah has now contradicted his earlier prophecy about Hezekiah’s death, we should probably not be too hard on the king for asking for an ’oth, a confirmatory sign (verses 8-11). We recall identical requests from Gideon and Joshua.

The movement of the sun’s shadow has to do with its progression on a set of stairs adjacent to the royal palace; a person could tell the time by the position of the sun’s shadow moving up the stairs. In the execution of the “sign,” the shadow moves backwards. The king, understandably, finds the phenomenon convincing.

In the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, during this period, the little kingdom of Babylon, still a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, is beginning to test the latter’s strength—finding it increasingly less impressive! Within a century, Babylon will make its move, finally vanquishing Nineveh in 609. In the present text, Hezekiah receives a “friendly” delegation from Babylon, not suspecting its full political significance. Unwisely, he displays signs of his kingdom’s prosperity to the delegation. The Prophet Isaiah, who sees reality far into the future, mentions—“Hear the Word of the Lord!”—the danger incurred by the king’s imprudence (verses 16-18). When sixth century editors put the finishing touches on the Book of Isaiah, they were much impressed with his ability to discern events so far in the future, convinced that they were witnessing, in their own times, the historical developments foretold by him.

Wednesday, August 20

Second Kings 21: Manasseh (687-642) and Amon (642-640), the two kings of Judah separating Hezekiah and Josiah, make no positive contribution to the spiritual health of the realm. Their careers are contained in this single and uninspiring chapter.

The infidelities of Manasseh stand in vivid contrast with the religious reforms of his father. In addition to reintroducing Phoenician Baalism—including child sacrifice (verse 6)—Manasseh brings in Assyrian astral worship (verse 5). In addition, fortune telling becomes prevalent.

There was a great deal of violence; Manasseh “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (verse 16). Josephus must have had this text in mind when he wrote that Manasseh “barbarously slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews; nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them, till Jerusalem overflowed with blood” (Antiquities. 10.3.1).

The most notable of the prophets murdered by Manasseh was the great Isaiah. According to an account recorded in the apocryphal story, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, Manasseh caused the prophet to be sawn in two. A passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it mentions this detail, is often thought to refer to the era of Manasseh: “Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword” (11:36–37).

The Bible-reader is stunned by this massive apostasy within a single generation. What can account for so thorough and swift a fall from grace? It is likely that it should be ascribed to several causes, but I suggest that among those causes should be counted a certain erroneous and unwarranted sense of security, nearly tantamount to superstition and magic. When Manasseh was but a child, Jerusalem had been miraculously delivered from Sennacherib’s siege. That deliverance, which had arrived as though out of nowhere, gave rise in many minds to the persuasion that Jerusalem was invincible and would never fall to the enemy. Once saved, Jerusalem would always be saved.

The Chronicler gives more qualified account of Manasseh. According to this source, the king had a conversion in his later years, after the Assyrians took him captive and imprisoned him for a while (Second Chronicles 33:11-17). This account is strengthened by an Assyrian source called The Prism of Esarhaddon. According to this archival document, the new emperor, Esarhaddon (680–669), compelled the kings in the western part of the Assyrian Empire to come to the capital of Assyria to render their obeisance. The Prism names all these kings, among whom was Me-na-si-i Ia-ú-di, Manasseh of Judah.

In 640 Manasseh’s son, Amon, is slain in revolt after a very brief reign.

Thursday, August 21

Acts 23:11-22: During the night after his hearing before the Sanhedrin, Paul was visited by the Lord in a dream, in which he was encouraged by the explicit assurance that he would be going to Rome. Consequently, in spite of outward appearances, Paul knew that his life was not in danger for the moment (23:11).

Such encouragement was exactly what he needed, for a new trouble arose on the next day. More than forty men, conspiring to murder him, vowed not to eat or drink until the deed was done (23:12-13). It is instructive to note that the plotters involved the Sadducees, the priestly party, in their conspiracy (23:14-15), but not the Pharisees. It was this latter group, we recall, that expressed sympathy for Paul’s message.

A plot involving so many people is hard to keep secret, and Paul, not confined by maximum security, was able to learn of it and, using the services of a nephew, to take steps against it (23:16-17). We are probably correct in suspecting that Luke’s source for this account was the boy himself.

Mark 14:32-42: In each of the gospels except John, the description of Judas’s betrayal is preceded by an account of Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden. This scene is also described in Hebrews 5:7-8.

The scene of Jesus praying in the Garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the Gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the Gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the Garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life.

From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the Agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic, Celsus, wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the Garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?” In truth, reasoned Celsus, if Jesus so “lamented” (oduretai) his coming death, he does not appear to have been especially brave, much less divine!

The Christian apologist, Origen, refuting Celsus in the following century, responded that the Gospel’s critic failed to appreciate Jesus’ complete acceptance of Father’s will in his coming death. His petition for deliverance—as desperate as it seemed to be—was immediately followed by the words, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done.” This sentiment, Origen went on, demonstrated Jesus’ “piety and greatness of soul,” his “firmness,” and his “willingness to suffer.”

Friday, August 22

Second Kings 23: Although repentance is profitable to the soul, Holy Scripture does not regard it as sufficient to undo the historical effects of sin. That is to say, by repentance I can change the course of my life—and my eternal destiny—but the bad things I have done, and the good things left undone, will still continue to run on their own. My repentance will not undo them as actions in history. Such is the practical meaning, I take it, of the adage, factum non fit non factum—”a thing done cannot become a thing not done.” It can be repented of, it can be forgiven, but it cannot be undone.

This truth about repentance was made clear at the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll in 622. When this document caused Josiah and his friends to realize how far Judah had wandered into sin, they immediately repented. The prophetess Huldah, consulted on this matter, assured them that the Lord accepted their repentance, but she also warned that their repentance would not avert the historical effects of so much sin. The accumulated transgressions of numerous generations would still bring about the destruction of the nation. Part of Josiah’s repentance was an acceptance of the divine judgment on the nation.

An integral component of repentance is the grace to leave in God’s provident hands the historical judgment of the manifold evil effects of our sins. We repentant sinners make such amends as we can (cf. Luke 19:8), but none of us can even know—much less avert—all the evil consequences our sins have unleashed in history. These things, once done, have already taken on a dynamism of their own, and God will deal with them according to His own wise judgment.

This truth about repentance pertains, not only to the bad things we have done, but also to the required good things we have failed to do. Only in our later years—long after we made the major decisions that governed our lives—do some of us come to realize how many possibilities we have squandered and how few duties we have fulfilled. But now it is too late: our education is long over, our children have already been raised, further opportunities are few, and our neglected friends lie cold in the tomb.

We find ourselves unable to undo any of it. We weep, with Joel, for “the years the locust hath consumed, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm.” We are obliged simply to accept the judgment of God, following the insight of the Psalmist: iudicia Domini vera, iustificata in semetipsa—“the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”

Repentance, then, as a turning from sin to God, involves more than a release from personal guilt. It means, also, handing over to the Lord’s judgment and providential care the countless historical effects of our myriad failures. That is to say, repentance places not only our individual lives but also our larger destiny—the myriad links that join us to the rest of mankind—under God’s sovereign governance of history. Repentance makes us participes rei, sharers of a thing vastly larger than ourselves.

Josiah’s death at Megiddo in 609—a bare thirteen years after the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll—was the beginning of all the punishments Judah would undergo as the binding historical legacy of its many infidelities. Jeremiah saw it and wept.