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Monday, March 30, 2015

Isaiah 18, Part Two: Four Kings

Isaiah 18, Part Two: Four Kings


At this point Isaiah's book may seem confusing. Judah and Israel, as well as Egypt, Cush, Canaan, Syria and Assyria all experienced changing alliances, defeats and victories, conquests and exile. Isaiah was prophet during the reign of many kings, and he was given visions spanning many decades, each with different circumstances and players.

It may be helpful to look at the pivotal events that occurred during the time of Isaiah.

Isaiah and the Four Kings

Isaiah lived during the years of 740 to 681 BC. He saw the rise and fall of at least six different kings of Judah, beginning with Azariah, and ending with Manasseh. The Book of Isaiah specifically deals with the days of four of these kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

Uzziah And Jotham: Maintaining the Status Quo

Uzziah, whose name was a contraction of "Azariah", was the son of Amaziah. During his reign over the southern kingdom of Judah, and later that of his son, Jotham, the civil war between the northern state of Israel and Judah reached a climax. Pul (Phalluka), then king of Assyria, took advantage of the unrest to march upon Israel and Syria. The king of Israel, Menahem, attempted to persuade Pul to become an ally, offering a thousand talents of silver (about 75,000 pounds of weight). The bribe only forestalled the invasion. A few years later, Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria captured several major cities of Israel, carrying away the people as captives back to Assyria (2 Kings 15).

Uzziah and Jotham saw Israel invaded and ransacked, yet did nothing to strengthen their own kingdom against a similar attack. Both Uzziah and Jotham "did what was right in the eyes of the LORD", yet they apparently ignored what was happening a few miles to the north of them.

Ahaz: Compromise and Conspiracy

Jotham's son, Ahaz, became king of the southern kingdom of Judah and quickly obliterated any spiritual heritage taught him by his father and grandfather.

2 Kings 16:2-4 (ESV) Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree (2 Kings 16).

When the inevitable Assyrian attack upon Judah came, Ahaz panicked. He sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, offering an alliance in trade for protection, sending all the silver and gold that could be gathered from the temple and palace in Jerusalem. The proposal of an alliance required a state visit to Assyria, where Ahaz saw an opportunity to further ingratiate Juday with Assyria.

2 Kings 16:10-13 (ESV) When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus. And when the king came from Damascus, the king viewed the altar. Then the king drew near to the altar and went up on it and burned his burnt offering and his grain offering and poured his drink offering and threw the blood of his peace offerings on the altar.

Ahaz, king of Judah, forsook Jehovah Lord GOD Almighty and sought the favor of the Assyrian king and his gods (2 Kings 16).

Assyria appeared to honor the alliance, sparing Judah from invasion. Assyria continued to press into the northern kingdom. Samaria, the capitol city of of Israel was captured, all of the its population carried away to Assyria, and replaced by people brought from Assyrian-controlled cities: Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim (2 kings 17).

Under Assyrian control Israel became a cosmopolitan mix of religion and culture.

2 Kings 17:29-32 (ESV) Every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. They also feared the LORD and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places.

Hezekiah: Resistance and Restoration

The death of Ahaz brought Hezekiah to the throne of the southern state of Judah. Hezekiah sought to cut all ties to Assyria, hoping to restore to Judah the political power, sovereignty and tradition faith they had enjoyed during the time of King David, when Israel was a single, united nation.

2 Kings 18:4-8 (ESV) He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the LORD. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses. And the LORD was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. He struck down the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city (2 Kings 18).

Hezekiah sought the reunification of Israel and Judah:

2 Chronicles 30:6-9 (ESV) So couriers went throughout all Israel and Judah with letters from the king and his princes, as the king had commanded, saying, “O people of Israel, return to the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria. Do not be like your fathers and your brothers, who were faithless to the LORD God of their fathers, so that he made them a desolation, as you see. Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the LORD and come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever, and serve the LORD your God, that his fierce anger may turn away from you. For if you return to the LORD, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land. For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”

Hezekiah's overture of peace was not entirely successful:

2 Chronicles 30:10-11 (ESV) So the couriers went from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, but they laughed them to scorn and mocked them. However, some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.

Hezekiah's bold moves toward reunification brought the attention of the king of Assyria:

2 Kings 18:13 (ESV) In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them.

Hezekiah attempted to fight back. He bought time by offering tribute:

2 Kings 18:14-15 (ESV) And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasuries of the king’s house.

Hezekiah strengthened Jerusalem's defenses:

2 Chronicles 32:2-8 (ESV) And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem, he planned with his officers and his mighty men to stop the water of the springs that were outside the city; and they helped him. A great many people were gathered, and they stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?” He set to work resolutely and built up all the wall that was broken down and raised towers upon it, and outside it he built another wall, and he strengthened the Millo in the city of David. He also made weapons and shields in abundance. And he set combat commanders over the people and gathered them together to him in the square at the gate of the city and spoke encouragingly to them, saying, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him, for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people took confidence from the words of Hezekiah king of Judah.

Hezekiah sought military support of Egypt, a strategy scorned by the captain of the Assyrian army:

2 Kings 18:21 (ESV) Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.

Four kings, four different responses to threats of harm and loss.

Ultimately, Judah was saved, not by strength or strategy, but by a miracle.

2 Kings 19:5-7 (ESV) When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, "Say to your master, Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land."

2 Kings 19:32-35 (ESV) Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: "He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David." And that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.

The defense of Judah against Assyria was successful, not by human means of strategy, intrigue or might, but through the sovereign power of God.

2 Kings 20:6 (ESV) I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.

The Four Kings

After this brief review of four kings that reigned over Judah during the time of Isaiah, it may be possible to characterize each king:

  • Uzziah and Jotham: Maintainers of the Status Quo
  • Ahaz: Breaker of Faith
  • Hezekiah: Restorer of Faith

What do you think?

Image of Isaiah, screenshot from Wahoo.art.

Image of Uzziah published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589) ("Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum ") [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Jotham, "Joatham rex" by Published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589) - "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum ". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Ahaz, "Ahaz" by Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) - "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Hezekiah, "Ezechias-Hezekiah" by Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) - "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Isaiah 18, Part One: Paper Boats and Whirring Wings

Isaiah 18, Part One: Paper Boats and Whirring Wings

What's gone before...

In chapter 17 Isaiah described the end of Damascus, capitol city of Syria, Israel's ally and hope of glory in their fight against Judah. God would bring Damascus down because of their idolatry and pride.

In this passage the God's sovereign control over all nations was seen. God can raise entire kingdoms up, and he can bring them utterly low.

We could identify ourselves in this passage, people who easily forget the God of our salvation, the Creator and Sustainer of our life. We stand condemned by our sin in the same way as Damascus and Israel, and our only hope lies in the kindness of God.

Now, in chapter 18...

Isaiah greets ambassadors sent by a land "of whirring wings, beyond the rivers of Cush". He urges them to go to a nation "tall and smooth, to a people feared near and far". All the world is called to watch as God destroys the impending threat, clearing the mighty army away as a worker might lop all all the fruit-bearing branches of his vineyard. Then the people "tall and smooth, a people feared near and far" will bring tribute to Mount Zion, rather than swords and spears.

First, the ambassadors: from what land do they come?

Isaiah 18:1-2 (ESV) Ah, land of whirring wings that is beyond the rivers of Cush, which sends ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters!

Isaiah describes this land as loud and in motion, as if it were a large bird, or a large army, from beyond the rivers of Cush.

The earliest mention of "Cush" in the Bible is found in Genesis 2, implying that Cush was in eastern Asia, near present-day Iraq.

"Cush" originally was the name of one of the four sons of Ham, the son of Noah (Genesis 10).

The names of Ham's sons indicate where they settled. Cush and his sons probably lived near their homeland, "in the land of Shinar", in present-day Iraq.

There is however, evidence that there was a "Cush" located in Africa, near Egypt. Speaking of his promise to preserve Israel, God declared the land of Egypt, Cush and Seba (descendants of Cush's brother) as ransom:

Isaiah 43:3 (ESV) For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you.

According to Easton's Illustrated Dictionary, "Cush" generally applied to the countries south of the Israelites, beyond the southern border of Egypt, otherwise known as "Ethiopia", or the Sudan. Ezekiel supports this:

Ezekiel 29:9-10 (ESV) The land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they will know that I am the LORD. Because you said, "The Nile is mine, and I made it," therefore, behold, I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Cush.

Evidently Cushite tribes had migrated from their homeland in eastern Asia, resettling south of Egypt. Thus, both regions were historically referred to as "Cush".

So, were the ambassadors from Assyria or from Ethiopia? The strongest evidence that the ambassadors were from Ethiopia is found in the account of Hezekiah, king of Judah.

The civil war between Judah and Israel was at its height, and Hezekiah feared invasion by Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, the ally-turned-conqueror of Israel. Hezekiah turned to Egypt for support (Isaiah 36). But God, through Isaiah, rebuked Hezekiah's dependence upon the foreign, idolatrous nation of Eqypt:

Isaiah 20:3-6 (ESV) As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. Then they shall be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, "Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?"

Here, Isaiah connects Cush with Egypt, implying an alliance joining in war with Judah against a common enemy: Assyria. But the effort at resistance would fail.

Isaiah 30:1-5 (ESV) “Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation. For though his officials are at Zoan and his envoys reach Hanes, everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace.”

Zoan was located in Egypt (Numbers 13:22). Hanes, or Chanes, was a contraction of Tahpanhes, located in Egypt as well (Jeremiah 43:7).

Isaiah's reference to the "land beyond the rivers of Cush" probably referred to ambassadors from the Egyptian-Cushite alliance. God's rebuke of Hezekiah, seen in Isaiah 30, makes Isaiah's opening greeting seem scornful. "Whirring wings" may describe much noise, but little force. "Vessels of papyrus" brings to mind the image of an armada of paper boats laying seige to an army of wood and metal.

What do you think?

Image of paper boat by Angela, on page, Creative Commons.

Image of map, screenshot from Google Maps, access January 26, 2015.