Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Courting Judgment

It is estimated the kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. The kingdom of Judah came to its own rather ignominious end 126 years later, in 586 BC — but it did not fall to Assyria. Rather, it was the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem and carried its people into exile.

This was not for lack of trying on the part of the Assyrians. The Assyrian Empire was a massive undertaking, lasting 300 years, spanning the Middle East and beyond. It has been referred to as “the most powerful empire in the world”.

The Assyrians excelled in battle tactics and siege warfare. Their army had its own separate engineering corps. Assyrian soldiers or conscripted slaves would move ramps, mobile ladders and massive siege engines right up against heavily fortified city walls to engage with those atop them, or batter in gates and doors, while below, miners and sappers would begin to dig their way in.

Making a Clean Sweep

They were also victorious with incredible consistency. No nation other than Judah ever successfully repelled the Assyrian forces. As Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh inquired of besieged Judeans around 687 BC, a full hundred years before Jerusalem’s fall:
“Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?”
This was far from an exhaustive list of Assyria’s conquests. The Babylonians, Syrians and innumerable smaller kingdoms fell like dominos. Even parts of virtually-impenetrable Egypt were taken. Probably Rabshakeh’s list was relatively recent. Its rhetorical punch comes from including Samaria (Israel) last of all.

But Rabshakeh’s point is that however many nations Assyria took on, their record of victory was at the time unblemished. “Has any of the gods of the nations EVER delivered his land?” The answer was clearly no. As Infogalactic puts it:
“[Jerusalem] is the only city mentioned as being besieged on Sennacherib’s Stele, of which the capture is not mentioned.”
Thus, Judah rightly should have fallen to Assyria in the days of Hezekiah. It nearly did. Perhaps God originally had the Judean exile on his schedule about the same time as Israel went into captivity.

A Terrible Bunch

After all, the Judeans were a terrible bunch too. Writing in 2 Kings, one historian says:
Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced.”
Ezekiel puts it even more strongly in his parable:
“Her sister Oholibah saw [the whoring of her sister Oholah], and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister.”
Here, “whoring” means idolatry, Oholah is the nation of Israel, and Oholibah the nation of Judah. Ezekiel’s point is that Israel was bad, but Judah was actually worse.

Hezekiah was a great king, and virulently opposed to idolatry. God blessed him in many ways. A great king could impose better conduct by law, but even a highly moral king could not transform the soiled hearts of an entire nation. As soon as Hezekiah died, his son plunged Judah back into greater evil than at any time in their history.

Assyrian Hubris

Why then did God allow Israel to go into captivity so much earlier than Judah? It obviously didn’t have a great deal to do with the relative measures of iniquity the two nations had accumulated for themselves.

The story of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem is laid out for us in Chronicles, Kings and Isaiah. Provoked by Hezekiah, who ceased paying tribute to Sennacherib, the Assyrians moved against Jerusalem in massive force, fully intent on sweeping its people away.

The big Assyrian mistake? It wasn’t in bringing their armies up against the people of God. Judah was richly deserving of judgment. God would probably have been fine with them receiving it, though it would certainly have come in his time frame, not theirs. Rather, the fundamental Assyrian problem was hubris. They messed with yet another “local deity” who turned out to be not so local at all, but rather the God of heaven and earth. Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh attempted to demoralize the captive Judeans by reminding them that their God was no more able to deliver them from him than any of the false “gods” of the other nations.

Rabshakeh’s Big Finish

His speech outside the wall of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18 finishes like this:
Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”
At this point, the man is literally daring God to stop him. And God took that very personally. He simply would not allow it to stand:
“Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.”
It took 185,000 dead Assyrian soldiers to do the job, but Sennacherib indeed turned around and went home, just as God had said he would.

For the Sake of His Name

God still eventually disciplined his people in Judah by sending them into richly-deserved captivity, but it wasn’t Assyria that got the job done. The episode makes one wonder how many times throughout history the institutional people of God — whether the nation of Israel or Christendom — have courted God’s judgment, but happened to have the good fortune to live at a time when the bad guys are so arrogant and awful that God opts to suspend judgment of those who claim to be his and deal with the blasphemers first.

Perhaps there have been other times when God has defended his own people only for the sake of his own name, and for no other reason.

Would he do it again, even when Christendom greatly dishonors his name? We never want to put that to the test, do we.

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