Read: Isaiah 36-39
Background Considerations Whatever position one takes about the authorship of Isaiah, chapters 36-39 provide a historical narrative which bridges the gap between the major points of emphasis and feel of the preceding chapters and Isaiah 40 and beyond. Assyria is the dominant threat before, Babylon after. A mix of judgment and salvation speeches before gives way to exuberant joy (especially in chapters 40-55) and celebration at God’s promised deliverance. New terms appear for the first time in chapters 40 and following – Redeemer, servant, a strong emphasis on creation, no mention of the prophet Isaiah. How might this affect our interpretation of what follows? Especially if they assume a setting in sixth-century Babylonian captivity rather than eighth-century Judah under Assyrian domination?
These chapters also exhibit another phenomenon on interest. Like Jeremiah 52, Isaiah 36-38 has almost direct parallels in the book of 2 Kings. While Jeremiah 51:64 records the end of the book – “Thus far are the words of Jeremiah.” – there is still another chapter! And it comes from 2 Kings 24. Isaiah 36-39 comes in large part (in many sections word for word) from 2 Kings 18-20. Why is this? Should we expand our understanding of the ways inspiration works in the Bible? Are these words any less inspired if we really don’t know who wrote them or the fact that they are duplicated here and there?
The historical context of these chapters is well documented in the Bible and by means of archaeology. The Assyrians have laid siege to Judah in 701 and King Sennacherib even went to the trouble of recording the story on a fired clay prism. In it he claims to have “penned up Hezekiah like a bird in a cage,” after destroying 46 of Judah’s walled cities. He did not conquer Jerusalem, according to both the inscription and the Bible, the latter of which tells us that the angel of the Lord came through the camp an destroyed thousands of soldiers. This was probably not 185,000 (since the largest recorded Assyrian army was only 120,000 and normally near 50,000), but maybe 5,180 (which would have been a tithe of the army, a decimation, which the ancients took as a sign from the gods to return home). We also have an inscription from a tunnel Hezekiah had dug out to bring water into Jerusalem before Sennacherib arrived. In addition, there are large graphic stone reliefs, excavated long ago in Iraq, which depict the siege and conquest of Lachish in southwest Judah.
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read Isaiah 36-39 a couple of times this week. Compare 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chron 32.
- Isaiah 36-37 – These chapters record the visit to Jerusalem of the Assyrian “Rabshakeh,” or commander, from the battle at Lachish. Watch in this account for several things: 1) the location of the encounter (see Isaiah 7 for the same place); 2) the typical ancient (only?) saber-rattling before military engagement; 3) the hubris or arrogance of the Rabshakeh’s speech, especially against the God of Judah (which should remind us of the standard prophetic set up for a fall!); 4) good King Hezekiah’s humility before God; 5) Isaiah’s oft-repeated invitation to trust God in crisis situations; 6) the prophetic speech against Assyria; 7) the end of the story with the end of the Assyrian army. Lots of things to think about here!
- Isaiah 38-39 – Here we read the story of Hezekiah’s illness, his prayer for healing and, on the good news of a positive response from God, a song of thanksgiving. In addition, we have the brief and intriguing story of Hezekiah’s ill-conceived plan to show off his goods.
Contributions to the study of Isaiah This bridge between the major parts of the book does help us make the transition from Assyrian to Babylonian settings and pulls the themes developed together.
Lessons for Life What can we learn about prayer in these chapters?