Isaiah 37 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 37
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And it came to pass, when king Hezekiah heard it, that he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD.

(1) Covered himself with sackcloth.—The king was probably accompanied by his ministers, all in the penitential sackcloth of mourners (Joel 1:8-13; Jonah 3:5-6).

And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests covered with sackcloth, unto Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz.
(2) Unto Isaiah the prophet.—At last, then, the people did “see their teacher” (Isaiah 30:20). In that supreme hour of calamity the prophet, who had been despised and derided, was their one resource. What could he do to extricate them from the evil net which was closing round them, and to vindicate the honour of his God?

And they said unto him, Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and of blasphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring forth.
(3) The children are come to the birth.—The bold language of the text stands where we should use an adjective of which we half forget the meaning. Things had come to such a pass that all plans and counsels were literally abortive. (Comp. Isaiah 26:17-18, and Hosea 13:13 for a like simile.)

It may be the LORD thy God will hear the words of Rabshakeh, whom the king of Assyria his master hath sent to reproach the living God, and will reprove the words which the LORD thy God hath heard: wherefore lift up thy prayer for the remnant that is left.
(4) Lift up thy prayer for the remnant . . .—Isaiah’s characteristic words (Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 10:21) had impressed itself on the king’s mind. Now that town after town of Judah had fallen into Sennacherib’s hands (forty-six, according to his inscriptions—Records of the Past, i. 38), those who were gathered within the walls of Jerusalem were as a mere remnant of the people.

So the servants of king Hezekiah came to Isaiah.
(5) So the servants . . .—Literally, And . . . The Authorised Version suggests that there was only one coming of the messengers. Possibly. however, the words imply a withdrawal between the delivery of their message and their coming a second time to receive his answer.

And Isaiah said unto them, Thus shall ye say unto your master, Thus saith the LORD, Be not afraid of the words that thou hast heard, wherewith the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
(6) The servants of the king of Assyria.—Not the usual word for “servants,” which might include high officers of state, but a less honourable one (na‘arâ), like puer in Latin, or garçon in French. He speaks of Rabshakeh (probably the king’s cup-bearer) as though he were only, after all, a valet.

Behold, I will send a blast upon him, and he shall hear a rumour, and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.
(7) I will send a blast upon him.—Better, I will put a spirit in him. The Authorised Version suggests the idea of some physical calamity, like that which actually destroyed the Assyrian army. Here, however, the “spirit,” stands for the impulse, strong and mighty, which overpowers previous resolves. (Comp. Isaiah 30:28.)

He shall hear a rumour.—The words admit of being explained either as a prediction rising out of a purely supernatural foresight, or as resting on some secret intelligence which Israel had received as to the movements of Tirhakah.

So Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria warring against Libnah: for he had heard that he was departed from Lachish.
(8) Warring against Libnah . . . Lachish.—Both names occur in Joshua 15:39; Joshua 15:42, as belonging to Judah. The step would seem to indicate a strategic movement, intended to check the march of Tirhakah’s army; but in our ignorance of the topography, we can settle nothing further. By some writers Libnah has been identified with Pelusium, or some other town in the Delta of the Nile. The narrative seems, perhaps, to suggest something more than a transfer of the attack from one small fortress in Judah to another; but that is all that can be said.

And he heard say concerning Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, He is come forth to make war with thee. And when he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying,
(9) Tirhakah.—The third of the twenty-fifth, or Ethiopian dynasty of kings, So, or Sabaco, with whom Hoshea, the last king of Israel, allied himself, being the first (2 Kings 17:4). He is described in Assurbanipal’s inscriptions (Records of the Past, i. 60) as king of Mizr and Cush—i.e., Egypt and Ethiopia. The policy of Hezekiah’s counsellors had led them to court his alliance, as in Isaiah 30, 31. Now, however, the Egyptian army was at least mobilised. “Rahab” was no longer “sitting still” (Isaiah 30:7).

When he heard it.—The message is in substance a repetition of its predecessors, more defiant, perhaps, as if in answer to the threatened attack of Tirhakah’s armies, which Sennacherib could scarcely fail to connect with Hezekiah’s confident hope of deliverance.

Thus shall ye speak to Hezekiah king of Judah, saying, Let not thy God, in whom thou trustest, deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.
Behold, thou hast heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands by destroying them utterly; and shalt thou be delivered?
Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed, as Gozan, and Haran, and Rezeph, and the children of Eden which were in Telassar?
(12) Gozan . . .—The induction drawn from the enumeration of conquered nations is continued. Strictly speaking, Sargon, the father of Sennacherib, was the founder of a new dynasty; but the “fathers” are, as commonly in the formulæ of Eastern kings, the predecessors of the reigning king. The position of Gozan is defined by 2 Kings 17:6 as being on the Habor, or Khabûr, which flows into the Tigris from the east, above Mosul. Haran is probably identical with Abraham’s resting-place (Genesis 11:31), and the Charran of Josephus and St. Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:4). “Rezeph” is identified with the Rhesepher of Ptolemy (Isaiah 5:13; Isaiah 5:6) below Thapeacus, between the ’Euphrates and Tadmor (= Palmyra). Telassar is probably an altered form of Tel-Assur (the hill of Assur), and was probably a new name given to a conquered city, after the manner in which Shalmaneser records that he gave names to cities that he had taken belonging to Akhuni, the son of Adini (Records of the Past, iii. 87, v. 30). In the patronymic we may trace the sons of Eden of this verse. In Amos 1:5 we have a Beth-Eden named as connected with Damascus; and in Ezekiel 27:23 an “Eden” connected with Haran and Asshur, as carrying on traffic with Tyre. The latter is probably identical with that named by Sennacherib.

Where is the king of Hamath, and the king of Arphad, and the king of the city of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah?
(13) Where is the king of Hamath . . .—The question which had been asked in Isaiah 36:19 as to the gods of the cities named is now asked of their kings, and the implied answer is that they are in the dungeons of Nineveh.

Hena, and Ivah.—The sites have not been identified, but Anah is found as the name of a city on the Euphrates, and Ivah may be the same as the Ava of 2 Kings 17:24.

And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up unto the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD.
(14) Hezekiah received the letter.—The Hebrew noun is plural, as though the document consisted of more than one sheet.

And spread it before the Lord.—The act was one of mute appeal to the Supreme Arbiter. The corpus delicti was, as it were, laid before the judge, and then the appellant offered up his prayer. Mr. Cheyne quotes a striking parallel from the “Annals of Assurbanipal” (Records of the Past, vii. 67), who, on receiving a defiant message from the King of Elam, went into the Temple of Ishtar, and, reminding the goddess of all he had done for her, besought her aid, and received an oracle from her as a vision of the night.

And Hezekiah prayed unto the LORD, saying,
O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth: thou hast made heaven and earth.
(16) That dwellest between the cherubims.—A like phrase in Psalm 18:10 refers, apparently, to the dark thunder-clouds of heaven. Here, probably, the reference is to the glory-cloud which was the symbol of the Divine presence, and which rested, when it manifested itself, between the cherubim of the ark (Numbers 7:89), those figures also symbolising the elemental forces of the heavens. (Comp. Psalm 68:33.)

Thou art the God, even thou alone.—The absolute monotheism of the faith of Israel is placed in strong antithesis to the polytheism of Rabshakeh (Isaiah 37:12). (Comp. Jeremiah 10:11, and Isaiah 40-42)

Incline thine ear, O LORD, and hear; open thine eyes, O LORD, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God.
Of a truth, LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations, and their countries,
(18) Of a truth, Lord . . .—The facts of Rabshakeh’s induction are admitted, but the inference denied, on the ground that the cases were not parallel. The gods of the nations had been cast into the fire (an alternative to their being taken as trophies for the temples of Asshur and Ishtar), but this could never happen to Jehovah, of whom there was no graven image, and He would show that He alone was ruler of the earth and of the heavens.

And have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them.
Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the LORD, even thou only.
Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent unto Hezekiah, saying, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Whereas thou hast prayed to me against Sennacherib king of Assyria:
(21) Then Isaiah the son of Amoz . . .—According to the rectified chronology, the grand burst of prophecy which follows was the last of Isaiah’s recorded utterances. As such, it will be interesting to note any points of contact that present themselves either with his earlier prophecies or with the great prophetic poem (Isaiah 40-66) traditionally ascribed to him. The prayer of Hezekiah, if he was not present at its utterance, was reported to him, and in the name of Jehovah he was commissioned to reply to it.

This is the word which the LORD hath spoken concerning him; The virgin, the daughter of Zion, hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn; the daughter of Jerusalem hath shaken her head at thee.
(22) The virgin, the daughter of Zion.—The same phrase had been used in Isaiah 23:12 of Zidon. There the virgin had been “oppressed,” i.e., “ravished” by the invaders, but Zion was to escape the ravisher, and laugh his lust to scorn.

Whom hast thou reproached and blasphemed? and against whom hast thou exalted thy voice, and lifted up thine eyes on high? even against the Holy One of Israel.
(23) Whom hast thou reproached . . .—The manifold iteration of the question emphasises the force of the answer. The “Holy One of Israel,” at whom the scornful revellers had sneered (Isaiah 30:11), was now seen to be the one mighty deliverer.

By thy servants hast thou reproached the Lord, and hast said, By the multitude of my chariots am I come up to the height of the mountains, to the sides of Lebanon; and I will cut down the tall cedars thereof, and the choice fir trees thereof: and I will enter into the height of his border, and the forest of his Carmel.
(24) By the multitude of my chariots.—The words refer apparently to the taunt of Isaiah 36:8. The inscriptions of the Assyrian king are full of like boasts. Shalmaneser, “Trackless paths and difficult mountains . . . I penetrated” (Records of the Past, iii. 85): and Assumacirpal, “Rugged mountains, difficult paths, which for the passage of chariots were not suited, I passed” (Ibid. p. 43).

To the sides of Lebanon.—The passage of Lebanon was not necessarily implied in Sennacherib’s invasion of Palestine. Possibly the words had become a kind of proverb for surmounting obstacles. Lebanon and Carmel are joined together, as in Isaiah 33:9.

I have digged, and drunk water; and with the sole of my feet have I dried up all the rivers of the besieged places.
(25) I have digged, and drunk water . . .—This, again, was one of the common boasts of the Assyrian conquerors. It was Sennacherib’s special glory, as recorded in his inscriptions, that he had provided cities with water which were before scantily supplied, that he had made wells even in the deserts (Records of the Past, i. 29, 31, 9:23).

All the rivers of the besieged places.—As the words stand, they suggest the thought that the Assyrian army could cut off the supply of water as well as provide it, and so connect themselves with the Rabshakeh’s taunt in Isaiah 36:12. Their true meaning, however, is probably, as in Isaiah 19:6; Micah 7:12, “the rivers or canals of Egypt,” a form being used for Egypt which also conveys the idea of “besieged fortresses.” So taken, the words are a defiant threat against Tirhakah. Not all the branches of the Nile in the Delta should protect his cities. His armies would, as it were, dry them up.

Hast thou not heard long ago, how I have done it; and of ancient times, that I have formed it? now have I brought it to pass, that thou shouldest be to lay waste defenced cities into ruinous heaps.
(26) Hast thou not heard . . .—The speech of Sennacherib ends, and that of Jehovah begins. The adverb “long ago” should be connected with the words that follow. The events of history had all been foreseen and ordered, as in the remote past, by the counsels of Jehovah. Kings and armies were but as His puppets in the drama of the world’s history. The words “hast thou not heard” suggest the thought that Isaiah assumes that Sennacherib had heard of his prophecies, or those of his fore-runners, as to the purposes of Jehovah—an assumption which, looking to the fact that he had ministers who were well acquainted with Hebrew (Isaiah 36:12), was in itself probable enough.

Therefore their inhabitants were of small power, they were dismayed and confounded: they were as the grass of the field, and as the green herb, as the grass on the housetops, and as corn blasted before it be grown up.
(27) Therefore.—Better, and.

They were as the grass of the field.—One symbol of weakness follows after another. The “grass upon the housetops” was, in this respect, a proverbial emblem (Psalm 129:6). The italics in as corn seem to suggest some error in transcription. The words as they stand give a field before the blades; those in 2 Kings 19:26, a blasting.

But I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me.
(28) Thy abode . . .—The three words include, in the common speech of the Hebrews, the whole of human life in every form of activity (Psalm 121:8; Psalm 139:2).

Because thy rage against me, and thy tumult, is come up into mine ears, therefore will I put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest.
(29) Therefore will I put my hook in thy nose . . .—The Assyrian sculptures represent both beasts and men as dragged in this way (Ezekiel 38:4). (Comp. the same image in Isaiah 30:28.)

And this shall be a sign unto thee, Ye shall eat this year such as groweth of itself; and the second year that which springeth of the same: and in the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruit thereof.
(30) And this shall be a sign unto thee.—The prophet now turns to Hezekiah, and offers, as was his wont (Isaiah 7:11; Isaiah 38:8), a sign within the horizon of the nearer future as the pledge of the fulfilment of a prediction which had a wider range. It was then autumn, probably near the equinox, which was the beginning of a new year. The Assyrian invasion had stopped all tillage in the previous spring, and the people had to rely upon the spontaneous products of the fields. In the year that was about to open they would be still compelled to draw from the same source, but in twelve months’ time the land would be clear of the invaders, and agriculture would resume its normal course, and the fulfilment of this prediction within the appointed limit of time would guarantee that of the wider promise that follows.

And the remnant that is escaped of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward:
(31) And the remnant that is escaped.—We note the “remnant” of the familiar formula of Isaiah’s earlier days. The name of Shear-jashub had not ceased to be an omen of good (Isaiah 7:3). And that remnant should be as the scion from which should spring in due course the goodly tree of the future (Isaiah 6:13).

For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and they that escape out of mount Zion: the zeal of the LORD of hosts shall do this.
(32) The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this.—Here, again, the prophet returns in his old age to the formula of the earlier days of Isaiah 9:7, with an implied reference to the grand promise with which it had then been associated.

Therefore thus saith the LORD concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it.
(33) Nor come before it with shields.—The clause points to the two forms of attack: (1) the invaders marching to the assault, protected by their serried shields against the darts and stones which were flung by hand or from engines by the besieged; and (2) the earthworks which were piled up to make the attack on the walls more feasible. (Comp. Habakkuk 1:10; Ezekiel 4:2.) Isaiah’s prediction is not only that Jerusalem will not be taken, but that the enemy, though now encamped around it, will not even proceed to the usual operations of a siege.

By the way that he came, by the same shall he return, and shall not come into this city, saith the LORD.
For I will defend this city to save it for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake.
(35) For mine own sake . . .—The words set forth, as it were, the two motives of Jehovah’s action: “for His own sake,” as asserting His majesty against the blasphemy of the Assyrians; for “David’s sake,” as mindful of the promise made to him, showing, in the spirit of the second commandment, that the good as well as the evil influences of men survive, and that a later generation may profit by the good that was in its predecessor, as well as suffer for its guilt.

Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.
(36) Then the angel of the Lord.—The words do not exclude—rather, as interpreted by 1 Chronicles 21:14, they imply—the action of some form of epidemic disease, dysentery or the plague, such as has not seldom turned the fortunes of a campaign, spreading, it may be, for some days, and then, aggravated by atmospheric conditions, such as the thunderstorm implied in Isaiah 29:6; Isaiah 30:27-30, culminating in one night of horror. History, as written from the modern stand-point, would dwell on the details of the pestilence. To Isaiah, who had learnt to see in the winds the messengers of God (Psalm 104:4), it was nothing else than the “angel of the Lord.” So he would have said of the wreck of the Armada, “Afflavit Deus et dissipantur inimici” or of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, “He sendeth forth his ice like morsels: who is able to abide his frost” (Psalm 147:17). The Assyrian records, as might be expected, make no mention of the catastrophe, but a singular parallel is presented by the account which Herodotus gives (ii. 141), on the authority of the Egyptian priests, of the destruction of Sennacherib’s army when he invaded Egypt, then under the rule of Sethon, a priest of Ptha or Hephæstos. The priest-king prayed to his gods, and the Assyrian army, then encamped before Pelusium, were attacked by myriads of field-mice, who gnawed the straps of quivers, bows, and shields, and so made all their weapons useless, and led to their taking flight. Therefore, the historian adds, there stood a statue of Sethon in the Temple of Hephaestos at Memphis, with a mouse in one hand and with the inscription, “Whosoever looks at me let him fear the gods.” Some writers (e.g., Ewald and Canon Rawlinson) have been led by this to the conclusion that the pestilence fell on Sennacherib’s army at Pelusium, and not at Jerusalem. It may be questioned, however, whether, even admitting that the narrative in its present form may be later than the exile, the probabilities are not in favour of the Biblical record, compiled as it was by writers who had documents and inherited traditions, rather than of the travellers’ tales which the vergers of Egyptian temples told to the good Herodotus.

In the camp of the Assyrians.—Josephus (Bell. Jud., v. 7, 2) names a site in the outskirts of Jerusalem which in his time still bore this name. The narrative of Isaiah leaves room for a considerable interval between his prophecy and the dread work of the destroyer (2 Kings 19:35). “In that night” does not necessarily imply immediate sequence, the demonstrative adjective being used, like the Latin iste, or ille, for “that memorable night.”

So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.
(37) So Sennacherib . . .—We have to remember that the Assyrian king had been engaged in the siege of Libnah, probably also in an Egyptian expedition, which from some cause or other was unsuccessful. The course of events was probably this: that in Egypt he heard of the ravages of the pestilence, returned to find his army too weak to fight, and then, abandoning all further action in the south, withdrew to Nineveh.

Departed, and went and returned.—We are reminded by the three synonyms of the proverbial “abiit, evasit, erupit” of Cicero, in Catil. ii. (Del.).

And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Armenia: and Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.
(38) And it came to pass.—The Assyrian inscriptions fill up the gap of twenty years between the events which appear here, as if in immediate sequence, with five campaigns in the north and east of the Assyrian Empire, chiefly against the Babylonians, who revolted again under the son of Merôdach-baladan.

Nisroch.—Some experts (Oppert and Schrader) have found the name in the Khorsabad inscriptions, in a prayer of Sargon to Nisroch as the patron of marriage, but the identification is disputed by others, as G. Smith, Sayce, and Cheyne. The etymology of the name, as meaning the “eagle” deity, is also one of the open questions of Assyrian research.

Adrammelech and Sharezer.—The former name appears in that of a deity of Sepharvaim in 2 Kings 17:31—its probable meaning being “the king of glory,” that of Sharezer, “the ruler preserves,” or, in a variant form, Sanatzu, “Sin (the moon-god) preserves.” The Assyrian records, so far as they are yet interpreted, make no mention of the murder, but an inscription of Esar-haddon’s, mutilated at the beginning, begins with an account of his victory over rebel princes, and the narrative of his campaign speaks of snowy mountains, which at least suggest Armenia (Heb. Ararat), (Records of the Past, iii. 101). Armenian traditions make the two parricides the founders of royal houses, the Sasserunians and Aizerunians. From the latter, in which the name of Sennacherib was common, sprang the Byzantine Emperor, Leo the Armenian. Esar-haddon is further memorable as having peopled Samaria with the mixed population of Babylonians, Cutheans, and others (2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:10), from whom the later Samaritans were descended—as having taken Zidon and deported its inhabitants (Records of the Past, iv., p. 111)—as having left in scriptions at Nahr-el-kelb, near Beyrout, in which he describes himself as “King of Egypt, Thebes, and Ethiopia,” as having probably been the “king of Assyria” who carried Manasseh bound in fetters to Babylon. The will of Sennacherib (Records of the Past, i. 136), giving him his chief treasures, and renaming him with a new title of sovereignty (Assur-Ebil-Muni-pal, i.e., “Assur is lord, the establisher of the son “), seems to imply that he was a younger son, whom the fondness of Sennacherib had exalted above his elder brothers, who accordingly revenged themselves by the murder of their father.

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