Isaiah 36: The Rabshakeh Speaks

Isaiah 36: The Rabshakeh Speaks (audio)

Isaiah 36: The Rabshakeh Speaks — notes and worksheet (pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

The events in this chapter occur in 701 B.C., when Sennacherib besieges Jerusalem. It is the 14th year of King Hezekiah’s reign, which began in 715 B.C.

Key verses:

Isa. 36:18-20 – “[Beware] that Hezekiah does not mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who of all the gods of these lands [ever] delivered his land from my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem?”

Quick summary:

Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, reports in his royal annals that he has captured 46 walled cities and countless villages in his conquest of Judah. Among the more important cities is Lachish, from which he sends his personal representative, the Rabshakeh, and a large army to surround Jerusalem and demand its surrender. The Rabshakeh, a high-ranking Assyrian official and the king’s cupbearer, mocks Judah’s king Hezekiah and the king’s trust in the Holy One of Israel. Hezekiah’s representatives – Eliakim, who is in charge of the palace; Shebna, the scribe; and Joah, the record keeper – receive the Rabshakeh’s call to surrender and deliver it to the king. They have torn their clothes as a sign of mourning and deep distress.

Take note:

Isaiah notes that the Rabshakeh delivers his message “near the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Fuller’s Field” (v. 2). This place is significant for geographical and theological reasons. Thirty years earlier, the Lord tells Isaiah to take his son Shear-jashub and meet King Ahaz at this location (Isa. 7:3). The prophet assures Ahaz that the allied forces of Aram and Israel will not defeat Judah. But Ahaz trembles and refuses to trust the Lord, turning instead to an alliance with Assyria (2 Kings 16:5-9). Now King Hezekiah faces a more ominous threat from Judah’s former ally, the Assyrians, whose messenger stands on the same spot, blaspheming the Lord and belittling His people. Will Hezekiah listen to the Rabshekah or remember the message of deliverance from Isaiah? Will the king, unlike his predecessor, stand firm in his faith?

The Men Sent by Kings (Isa. 36:1-3)

Sennacherib, who rules Assyria from 705-681 B.C., has boasted of conquering 46 walled villages in Judah and numerous unprotected communities, as well as taking more than 200,000 people captive. His invasion begins in the north as his army moves along the coast, defeating such towns as Aphek, Timnah, Ekron and Lachish. Lachish, about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem, then becomes the staging area for his attack on other towns and the place from which he sends his spokesman and a massive army.

According to 2 Kings 18:17, Sennacherib sends three of his most important officers to arrange for Hezekiah’s surrender of the capital city: Tartan (supreme commander), Rabsaris (chief officer) and Rabshakeh (field commander). These are military titles, not personal names. Judah’s representatives are Eliakim, who is in charge of the king’s palace; Shebna, the scribe who has been demoted and replaced by Eliakim as the king’s cupbearer; and Joah, the record keeper.

The Message for Hezekiah (Isa. 36:4-20)

The Rabshakeh directs his message to Hezekiah, speaking loudly in Hebrew so that even the common citizens on Jerusalem’s wall may hear his taunting words. “The field commander’s speech is one of the most insolent and blasphemous found anywhere in Scripture, for he reproached the God of Israel,” according to Warren W. Wiersbe. “His speech is a masterful piece of psychological warfare in which he discredits everything that the Jews held dear” (Be Comforted, S. Is 36:1).

Interestingly, the Rabshakeh begins by echoing one of Isaiah’s messages, reminding the Jews that their trust in Egypt is misplaced. “Now who are you trusting in that you have rebelled against me?” he shouts. “Look, you are trusting in Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff” (vv. 5b-6a; compare with Isaiah’s words in 30:1-7; 31:1-3).

Next, he mischaracterizes Hezekiah’s religious reforms in Judah to accuse God’s people of having no help in heaven or on earth (v. 7). “The Assyrian mistakes Hezekiah’s religious reforms whereby he took away the high places (2Ki 18:4) as directed against Jehovah. Some of the high places may have been dedicated to Jehovah, but worshipped under the form of an image in violation of the second commandment…. Hence the Assyrian’s allegation has a specious color: you cannot look for help from Jehovah, for your king has ‘taken away His altars’” (Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, S. Is 36:7).

For the Jews, the only reasonable response to their hopeless condition is to surrender, according to the Rabshakeh, who mockingly offers to give them 2,000 horses if they can only find a matching number of riders. But even 2,000 Jewish soldiers on horses are no match for the lowest ranking Assyrian officer. Why should God’s people continue to barricade themselves behind Jerusalem’s walls when the Lord Himself has commanded the Assyrians to take the city? “Have I attacked this land to destroy it without the Lord’s approval?” asks the Rabshakeh. “The Lord said to me, ‘Attack this land and destroy it’” (v. 10). These words are meant to terrorize the people by making them think the Lord has abandoned them, when in fact Isaiah has told them to trust God, who will not permit the Assyrians to take the city. While the Lord of Hosts has indeed used the Assyrians as His rod of judgment against both Israel and Judah, He has spoken no word to Assyria’s leaders assuring them of their conquest of Judah’s capital city. The Rabshakeh falsely invokes the name of Israel’s God. As he will soon learn, no nation can use God’s name with impunity.

God calls us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). The Rabshakeh’s call to surrender may sound reasonable to the unbelieving Jews who saw their city surrounded and their allies crushed by the brutal Assyrian hoards. But God has promised to deliver His people and He remains true to His word.

Judah’s messengers respond to the Rabshakeh’s opening volley by making the reasonable request that matters of state be discussed privately rather than “within earshot of the people who are on the wall” (v. 11). Aramaic is a major diplomatic language in Isaiah’s day, similar to Hebrew but different enough so the common people have difficulty understanding it. The concern of Judah’s representatives is that panic will spread throughout the city. The Assyrian’s response – denigrating the Jews and speaking loudly in Hebrew – reveals his character. “Proud and haughty scorners, the fairer they are spoken to, commonly speak the fouler,” writes Matthew Henry. “Nothing could be said more mildly and respectfully than that which Hezekiah’s agents said to Rabshakeh…. To give rough answers to those who give us soft answers is one way of rendering evil for good; and those are wicked indeed, and it is to be feared incurable, with whom that which usually turns away wrath does but make bad worse” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 36:11).

Calling out to the people in Hebrew, the Rabshakeh urges them not to let Hezekiah deceive them into thinking the Lord will deliver them from the Assyrians (vv. 13-15). Rather, the people are exhorted to lay down their weapons and surrender without a fight. If they do, even though they will be taken captive, Sennacherib will ensure their prosperity in another land. Pressing his persuasion further, the Rabshakeh asks the Jews, “Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim?” (vv. 18-19). Hamath and Arpad are cities in Aram. The location of Sepharvaim is unknown but possibly near the other two. People are brought from these cities to repopulate Samaria after its fall (2 Kings 17:24). The commander also boasts that since Samaria’s god failed to rescue the northern kingdom 21 years earlier (722 B.C.), the people of the southern kingdom have no reason to hope in deliverance at the hand of the Lord of Hosts.

The Misery of the Messengers (Isa. 36:21-22)

The Rahshakeh’s words no doubt terrorize Hezekiah’s men who, in obedience to the king, say nothing in reply. In fact God’s Word instructs us about a proper response to arrogant and foolish people like the Assyrian commander: “Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness, or you’ll be like him yourself” (Prov. 26:4). Eliakim, Shebna and Joah return to Hezekiah and, with clothes torn as a sign of distress, mourning or grief over the blasphemy they have just heard, report the Rabshakeh’s words.

It’s possible that Hezekiah has instructed his men to receive the Assyrian commander’s message in silence so they would not be guilty of engaging a blasphemer in a war of words. In Exodus 14, for example, as the Jews are trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, and as they begin to question God and His chosen leader, Moses rebukes them, shouting, “The Lord will fight for you; you must be quiet” (Ex. 14:14). And in Jude 1:9, the writer reminds Christians to trust God to deal with blasphemers and apostates: “Yet Michael the archangel, when he was disputing with the Devil in a debate about Moses’ body, did not dare bring an abusive condemnation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

Closing Thought

Warren W. Wiersbe comments: “Crises often come when circumstances seem to be at their best. Hezekiah had led the nation in a great reformation, and the people were united in the fear of the Lord. They had put away their idols, restored the temple services, and sought the blessing of their God. But instead of receiving blessing, they found themselves facing battles! ‘After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah’ (2 Chron. 32:1, NIV). Had God turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to all that Hezekiah and his people had done? Of course not! The Assyrian invasion was a part of God’s discipline to teach His people to trust Him alone. Even Hezekiah had at first put his trust in treaties and treasures (2 Kings 18:13–16), only to learn that the enemy will keep the wealth but not keep his word. Judah had negotiated to get help from Egypt, an act of unbelief that Isaiah severely rebuked (Isa. 30:1–7; 31:1–3). God’s great purpose in the life of faith is to build godly character. Hezekiah and his people needed to learn that faith is living without scheming” (Be Comforted, S. Is 36:1).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips