Slaughter of the Assyrians

Isaiah 37:36-37 (2 Kings 19:35-36)

Nearly forty years have passed since Isaiah saw the LORD of Armies on his throne in heaven. Kings Uzziah, Jotham, and Ahaz are gone, and Hezekiah rules a shrinking Judah from within the fortified walls of Jerusalem. King Sennacherib of Assyria has captured the other forty-six walled cities of Judah. He and his massive army now fix their eyes on Jerusalem. Sennacherib sends his royal spokesman to urge surrender. As the spokesman stands near the conduit of the upper pool – the same spot on which Isaiah earlier implored Ahaz to trust God rather than human alliances – he delivers the king’s offer of peace and, with it, a dire warning to Hezekiah’s representatives:

Beware that Hezekiah does not mislead you by saying, “The LORD will rescue us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations rescued his land from the power of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sephardim: Have they rescued Samaria from my power? Who among all the gods of these lands ever rescued his land from my power? So will the LORD rescue Jerusalem from my power?

Isa. 36:18-20

Sennacherib then sends Hezekiah a letter, repeating the threats and mocking God (Isa. 37:8-13). Hezekiah takes the letter to the temple and spreads it out before the LORD. He prays for deliverance so that “all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, LORD, are God – you alone” (37:20). The LORD answers Hezekiah’s prayer through Isaiah, who sends a message to Hezekiah with this divine promise:

Therefore, this is what the LORD says about the king of Assyria:

He will not enter the city, shoot an arrow here, come before it with a shield, or build up a siege ramp against it.

He will go back the way he came, and he will not enter this city. This is the LORD’s declaration.

I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.

Isa. 37:33-35

Without delay, Isaiah records the angel of the LORD striking down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. Surveying the carnage the next morning, Sennacherib breaks camp and returns to Nineveh. Nearly twenty years later, as the king worships in the temple of his god, two of his sons assassinate him (37:36-38).

Just as Sennacherib sent his royal messenger to address Hezekiah and mock Hezekiah’s God, Yahweh sends his divine messenger – the angel of the LORD – to defend his people and display his sovereignty. Gary Smith writes:

This was an unusual act of Holy War against God’s enemies, for it was more common for God to give Israel’s enemies into their hands and then require the Israelites to go in and actually kill their enemies (Josh. 6:2-5; 8:1-2; 10:8-11). By killing 185,000 Assyrian troops without any human assistance, God put fear in the hearts of the Assyrians, for they realized that they were not fighting against an enemy that they could defeat. The Assyrians were smart enough and superstitious enough to figure out that this was an act of a divine power.

Gary Smith

Previously, the LORD made it clear to Isaiah he would deliver the Israelites from the Assyrians. Yahweh would break the Assyrians and tread them down (14:25); make them like fine dust and blowing chaff (29:5); shatter them with his voice (30:31); and devour them by a sword not forged by man (31:8). All the Israelites needed to do was trust in God and watch him work.

Curiously, the angel of the LORD does not kill Sennacherib. Perhaps the shock of seeing so many dead troops and the shame of a bloodless defeat are more fitting punishments for a mocker of God. Powerless to continue the siege of Jerusalem, the once-mighty king returns home, vanquished and humiliated.

There is no description of the angel’s appearance. No words are recorded. No explanation of the angel’s method of  judgment. Just swift, silent, and widespread death. The mighty Sennacherib, who arrogantly taunted the LORD of Armies, returns home with his proverbial tail between his legs. 

The LORD acts decisively against Sennacherib, not because the Israelites are righteous, or even because Hezekiah humbles himself in prayer as King David so often did (37:35). Rather, it appears there are times God intervenes directly in human history to vindicate his Holy Name, thus proving to his undeserving children, as well as to many hostile nations, that he alone is the divine king who rules the world. And since Yahweh’s name is in the angel of the LORD (Exod. 23:21), it is Yahweh himself in the person of the preincarnate Christ who comes to vindicate himself. That the angel is Yahweh seems borne out in Yahweh’s words to Hezekiah: “will defend this city and rescue it for my sake” (37:35, emphasis added).

How could this be?

Questions naturally emerge from Isaiah’s account, as well as the parallel passage in 2 Kings 19:35-36. First, how is it possible for such a large number of experienced fighters to die in a single night without even drawing their swords? After all, no ancient Assyrian document acknowledges the defeat. In fact, the Assyrian account of this campaign claims Sennacherib took 200,150 Judeans captive and locked Hezekiah “up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage.” The Assyrian annals also report Hezekiah paid heavy tribute to Sennacherib.

In response, the CSB Apologetics Study Bible notes:

[I]t was standard practice for Assyrian rulers like Sennacherib to omit mention of embarrassing defeats in their annals. This was a large number of soldiers, so some prefer to interpret the Hebrew word ‘eleph [thousand] not as a numeral but a term for a military unit, not necessarily equaling a thousand men in strength. Whatever the case, the incident was a clear demonstration of the Lord’s power over the Assyrians.

CSB Apologetics Study Bible

Put another way, Yahweh promised his people deliverance from the Assyrians – a deliverance that is swift, certain, and divinely orchestrated. If the LORD can speak the universe into existence (Ps. 33:6-7, 9), he can miraculously destroy a hostile army bent on annihilating his chosen people. And if there’s any doubt Sennacherib could amass such a large number of troops to begin with, it is reported that the Assyrian army numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Second, by what means does the angel of the LORD carry out his promise to destroy the Assyrian army? Isaiah lists no proximate cause for their deaths, although he makes it clear the destruction is swift and widespread. Jewish historian Josephus suggests a plague wiped out the Assyrians. This could be tied in some way to a report from Herodotus that a plague fell on the Assyrians while they were in Egypt. It’s certainly possible for the LORD to use a communicable disease to accomplish his purpose (e.g., Lev. 26:25; Num. 16:49; 25:9; Deut. 28:22; 2 Chron. 7:13-14). 

Another possible secondary agent is a simoon, a hot south wind known to envelop and destroy whole caravans. Perhaps connected to this is Isaiah’s prophecy of destruction by the LORD’s “consuming fire, in driving rain, a torrent, and hailstones” (Isa. 30:30).

The bottom line is that we don’t know how the angel of the LORD carries out his attack on the Assyrians. Although he may use secondary means like disease or natural disasters, he doesn’t need them. He simply may withdraw the life breath from each of Sennacherib’s soldiers. In any case, the deaths come quickly and are widespread. Further, they result in the withdrawal of Sennacherib and the vestiges of his defeated army. This harkens back to the work of the destroyer, who strikes down the firstborn of men and livestock in Egypt (Exod. 12:23, 29). We are not told how the destroyer accomplishes this, but we see its immediate effects: release of the Israelites from bondage (Exod. 12:30-32).

If not through public confession, Sennacherib at least must grudgingly acknowledge the supremacy of Israel’s God. His field commander once boasted that one Assyrian junior officer is stronger than two thousand Jewish charioteers (36:8-9). Yet it only takes one of Yahweh’s angels to decimate Sennacherib’s army. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true: Yahweh mows down the Assyrians like a forest (10:33-34), strikes them in wrath like a devastating storm (30:27-33), and shatters them by his voice (30:31-33). 

Third, if the angel of the LORD is indeed the preincarnate Christ, how can he slaughter so many men in their sleep? It seems brutal and without mercy. Why not wake them and give them an opportunity to retreat, or even repent? The presence of this divine messenger has struck fear in the hearts of people before. Why not scare the Assyrians straight? If this is the Savior of the world who would come seven centuries later to shed his own blood for mankind’s sins, why is Assyrian blood now on his hands? 

We addressed this issue in previous posts, exploring the deaths of Egypt’s firstborn males at the hands of the destroyer, whom we identified as the preincarnate Christ. A brief recap is in order.

To begin, we should understand that the persons of the Godhead are omniscient. This means, at least in part, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit know each human heart and foreknow each human decision. They know the hearts of Sennacherib and his soldiers. They know the Assyrians’ resolve to destroy the Israelites and exalt their false gods above Yahweh. They know Sennacherib’s determination to stop at nothing. And they know that Sennacherib, left unchecked, would utterly destroy God’s chosen people, through whom Yahweh is sending the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). God’s plans are not thwarted, and his promises are not neglected. So, the angel of the LORD operates from a base of full omniscience.

Next, we must remember that Jesus is the judge of all (John 5:22). He has ultimate authority over all creation – and ultimate responsibility to protect its goodness. His holiness demands justice. This is the same Jesus whose robe is dipped in blood and from whose mouth protrudes a sword for striking the nations (Rev. 19:13-15); who separates the sheep from the goats, sending the goats into outer darkness (Matt. 25:31-46); and who asks the religious elite of the first century how they can escape being condemned to hell (Matt. 23:33).

Finally, we should see that divine love and judgment are compatible – even essential to the nature of a holy God. He is simultaneously just and merciful, vengeful and forgiving, the author of everlasting life and the one who tells unrepentant rebels on the last day, “Depart from me, you lawbreakers!” (Matt. 7:23).

There is a day of reckoning for all people. Though perhaps many of the Assyrians who perished in their sleep were of kinder disposition than others, they all died together. Yet, on the last day, they are resurrected and judged individually before the same God who cut short their lives on earth. There, he sets things right. A God who is truly good must hate evil – and do something about it.

The same thrice-holy LORD of Armies who sits enthroned in heaven is also the angel of the LORD who kills 185,000 Assyrians in their sleep. And while his bloody robes bear evidence of his divine judgment, they also testify to the wickedness of mankind – a wickedness that prompts the Son of God to leave the glory of heaven and  shed his own divine blood as a remedy for human sin. In light of God’s holiness and mankind’s wickedness, it should not surprise us that Yahweh sometimes responds violently. In fact, we should comfort ourselves that he doesn’t intervene this way more often. His patience is for our benefit. As Peter writes, “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perishbut all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

Next: The Lord of Armies: A closer look

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.