The Rod of God's Anger
A Study in Prophecy
'Ho, Assyrian, the rod of mine anger and the staff of my fury. Against a godless nation 1 send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him" (Isa. 10.5-6 RSV).
The 10th chapter of Isaiah commences one of the most important prophetic passages of the Old Testament. Its significance resides in the fact of its primary fulfilment during Isaiah's own day, in the Assyrian king Sennacherib's military campaigns in Judah during the period 710-701 BC, campaigns that ended with the destruction of his army by Divine intervention. It also constitutes a set of guide lines to the interpret other O.T. foreshadowing of events that terminate this present world-age and usher in the Messianic era upon earth. There are a number of striking factors connected with the theme which serve to draw attention to its importance in prophetic study; these will be alluded to in order.
The first four verses of Isaiah 10 belong to the preceding chapter. Chapters. 8.5 to 10.4 comprise the Lord's message to Israel's generation of Isaiah's day warning them that judgment for their apostasies must inevitably come upon them. However, the denunciation is combined with the consoling promise that after the judgment will come repentance and blessing and the coming of the Prince of Peace. Isaiah 10.5 starts a new theme; this continues to the end of chapter 12. First of all, in 10.5 to 10.11, "the Assyrian" is hailed as God's instrument of judgment upon Israel. In his arrogance he claims that what he is doing is by his own power and in his own strength. He does not know that in reality God is using his ambitious designs as the means of Israel's chastisement and when that purpose is achieved he himself will be destroyed (10.12-19). Isaiah 10. 20-23 leads on to a vision of the far-distant future when Israel will have learned the lesson of this judgment and returned to its own land in peace and prosperity. Verses 24-27 record God's appeal to Israel to have no fear of "the Assyrian" but to rest upon God in faith. As though to test this faith, the rest of the chapter, vss 28-34, is a vivid description of the manner in which the invading armies will advance upon and encompass Jerusalem, ending again with the assurance that they advance to their own destruction. As a literal account of the Sennacherib's campaign back in Isaiah's day this is the end of the story. The greater fulfilment that Sennacherib prefigured does not end here; it goes on into chapter 11 with the next stage in the Divine programme following the destruction of world evil, the arising of Christ to establish his Millennial Kingdom, the conditions of which are described up to verse 9 Verses 10-16 continue with the theme of the restoration of Israel to the Holy Land at that time; chapter 12 completes the story with the picture of converted and purified Israel, secure in its own land, ready for the part it is to play in the work of world conversion which is the purpose of the Messianic era.
In the O.T. 'the Assyrian', referred to in this way five times by Isaiah and several times elsewhere, is always a fore view or a memory of Sennacherib. Because of his boastful claims and arrogance against God he was regarded by every generation of Israelites as the great prototype of God's greatest enemies. Certain "End-Time" prophecies of Daniel, Zechariah and Micah, in addition to Isaiah, are expressed in phraseology reminiscent of that momentous invasion of Judah by this ruthless conqueror.
The prophetic allusions to Sennacherib's campaigns and their relation to the Divine judgment and, later, deliverance, which came to Israel, can only be understood in the light of some knowledge of the history of the period. The historical accounts of this king's military activities in Judah and his disastrous end are found in 2 Kings 18.13 to the end of chap. 19; 2 Chron. 32.1-23, and Isaiah chapters 36 and 37. There is also Sennacherib's own account. A century ago there were discovered at Nineveh two six-sided clay cylinders inscribed with the Assyrian king's own account of the same campaigns. These inscriptions supplement and considerably amplify the Scripture narrative; it is true that Sennacherib says a great deal more than the Bible about the treasures he took away from Judah and is virtually silent about the details of his calamitous defeat at Jerusalem. That, perhaps, is only natural. But the accounts are valuable aids and do throw light upon many of the details which the Scriptures record only briefly. The cylinders, made by the order of Sennacherib fifteen years after the events they record, remain to this day, one in the British Museum and one in the University of Chicago, strong witnesses to the truth of the Bible.
The year was 711 B.C.; Hezekiah was king of Judah and the prophet Isaiah his faithful counsellor. Sargon, king of Assyria, was away fighting in the east. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the western tributary states of Palestine and Phoenicia had revolted under promise of help from Egypt, help that in the event was not forthcoming. Sargon's son, the Crown Prince Sennacherib, invaded the west as Commander-in-Chief of the forces and suppressed the revolt. The Philistine stronghold of Ashdod was besieged and taken. In 710 the Assyrian turned his attention to Judah, which was on the defensive; this is when towers equipped with weapons were erected on the walls and Hezekiah built his famous tunnel to carry water to the pool of Siloam (2 Chron. 32.1-8). Hezekiah made peace with promise of tribute, and Sennacherib went on to subdue Lower Egypt and return to his own land.
This year, 710 BC, was the commencement of nine troublous years for Judah. Within four years Sargon was dead and again the Palestinians were in revolt, still under promise of help from Egypt. By 702 Sennacherib, now king, was on the spot again and this time prepared for a thorough settlement of the problem. He first took possession of the Lebanon district and conquered the commercial port of Sidon, so gaining control of the sea-going trade of the Phoenicians, which was one of his objectives. At this the coalition began to break up. The three States of Moab, Ammon and Edom sent messengers to the king with assurances of friendship and submission; they were spared the horrors of war. The Philistines were overrun, only the city of Lachish holding out. Hezekiah alone refused submission and prepared for another siege. (This is where 2 Chron. 32.7-23 and 2 Kings 18.13 to 19.37 apply). This time the Egyptians did come out to help but the Assyrian forces defeated them. With most of Judah in Assyrian hands and Egypt proved a broken reed, as Isaiah had warned would be the case, (Isa. 20. 4-6; see also Isa. 36.6), Hezekiah submitted and paid heavy tribute, (2 Kings 18.14). Sennacherib says that he sent over two hundred thousand captives to Nineveh out of Judah; the Bible is silent as to this save a possible allusion in Isa. 22.
The Philistine city of Lachish was still holding out and this being the one remaining obstacle on the way to Egypt, Sennacherib's forces commenced a siege. For the second time Egyptian troops, aided this time by Ethiopians, advanced into Palestine. The Assyrian had to divide his forces, some to hold the Egyptians at Libnah in the south of Palestine, some to maintain the siege of Lachish, and another detachment detailed to surround Jerusalem, despite the agreement with Hezekiah, and demand its capitulation. This was the stage of which so much is said in Kings, Chronicles and Isaiah. Conforming to the prophet's advice, Hezekiah put his trust in the Lord and defied the Assyrian general. "Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and four score and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed (Isaiah 37.36-37). That was the end; Sennacherib never returned. And for many years afterwards the people of Israel had peace. These and many other details form the background to several Old Testament views of future events characterizing the destruction of evil at the end of this present Age. The basis for this understanding seems to reside in what seems at first sight to be a most unlikely text, Isaiah 20.1. "In the year that the commander in chief who was sent by Sargon the King of Assyria came to Ashdod and fought against it, and took it". Sennacherib was the "tartan" (tartanu) or commander-in-chief of the army when he captured Ashdod in 711 BC and then turned his attention to Jerusalem in 710. Now this year 710 seems to be a significant one in the timing of the Divine purpose. It forms the exact midpoint between the institution of Israel as the chosen nation of God at Sinai in 1452 BC and the final rejection ("your house is left unto you desolate"), at the Crucifixion in AD 33. It is also the mid-point between the birth of Ishmael in 2057 B.C. and the completion of the conquest of Palestine by the Arab descendants of Ishmael under Caliph Omar in 638 AD from which time Arabic claim to possession of the land subsists. It is also the mid-point, within a few years, between the commencement of the Hebrew prophetic ministry in David the king (accession 1017 BC) and its end with the death of Malachi about 403 BC during which time the Divine messages of warning and hope were constantly in their ears. There is fairly reasonable ground for thinking that, within a century or so at any rate, it also forms the mid-point of the entire history of this present world-age. This is from the warning period that immediately preceded the Flood to the similar warning period which constitutes the "signs of the times" of the approaching Messianic Age.
All this can hardly be accidental. At this time Isaiah, (20.2-3) was to conduct himself in a stipulated manner to make himself a "sign" to all observers, declaring that within a few more years the power of the existing great world-ruler, Egypt, was to be broken before the rising strength of a new tyrant, Assyria.
Elsewhere in Isaiah it is revealed that the new usurper was to be destroyed by Divine intervention before receiving the fruits of victory and that in all this, Israel would learn the futility of placing its trust in any earthly power, and eventually turn to God for deliverance. The likeness of all this to what is so often foreseen in Scripture as the manner in which the kingdoms of this world will eventually become the Kingdom of God is so marked that one might very reasonably conclude that here we have a kind of Divine marker, saying in effect; here in the events of this short period, commencing with Sennacherib's first threat to Jerusalem in 710 B.C. and culminating in his final overthrow in 701, there is enshrined a picture in miniature of the more spectacular events staged on a greater scale, which are to mark the period of the ending of this present age and the overthrow of all its forces of evil. At the very least, the details of this nine-year period, as recorded in both the Scriptures and Sennacherib's inscriptions (Taylor cylinder, so called after its discoverer), can throw some light upon the significance of various allusions in Daniel 11, Micah 5 and Zechariah 14. Of these three, Micah is the earliest in point of time, contemporary with Isaiah, and therefore himself involved in the events of Sennacherib's campaign. From some internal indications, his prophecy would appear to have been spoken or written before the fall of Samaria and the Ten-Tribe captivity. He foresaw the Babylonian captivity, still more than a century future, and he may well have foreseen the Assyrian invasion of Judah before it occurred on the basis of what he already knew of Assyrian oppression in Samaria. At any rate, in his 5th chapter, which is a Messianic preview, he brings together in masterly fashion the conflict between the evil forces of this world, symbolized by "the Assyrian", and the irresistible power of the Ruler who emanates from Bethlehem. Interwoven with this is the triumph of God's faithful ones who are delivered from the Assyrian and proceed then to evangelize the nations.
The second analogy enshrines the words of the revealing angel to Daniel in his 11th chapter. The passage describing the deeds of the "king of the north" who at the Time of the End invades and ravages and crushes all opposition until he meets his own end at the standing up of Michael, champion of Israel, so reminiscent of Sennacherib's invasion in the days of Hezekiah that it might almost have been written with that story in mind. Were Daniel 11 the unaided work of man that might well be so, but we have to remember that this passage constitutes part of a message from above, revealed to Daniel by the power of the Holy Spirit. The choice of words and the descriptive background is of God. If it is manifestly analogous to Sennacherib's actions that can only be because the student is expected to follow the analogy for the detailed interpretation of the revelation.
The whole of Dan. 11 is a guarded and necessarily somewhat obscure foreview of world history as it affects God's people from the time of Daniel himself to the end of this Age and the inauguration of the Messianic Age. The relevant portion dealing with the "king of the north" and the close of the Age is contained within verses 36-45 and it is this portion which is capable of considerable illumination when compared with the Judean campaign of Sennacherib. The stage, of course, is immeasurably widened and the actors representative of world powers greater by far than those who in that past day wrangled over the possession of Judah. Sennacherib becomes the "king of the north", a great world power emerging late in the Age, almost at its end; Egypt the older world power which has borne rule more or less from the beginning. Judah and Jerusalem picture the regathered and purified "Holy Nation" of the End Time, awaiting that spectacular deliverance from the enmity of the world which is symbolized by the "standing up" of Michael. On this basis a detailed examination of the passage repays the effort.
Finally, against a different background and covering a much shorter period of time, there is the brief but eloquent vision in Zechariah 14. This describes the gathering of all the nations of the world against Israel, regathered in faith, and the intervention of God from heaven to deliver His people and declare the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. Two or three allusions here are reminiscent of Sennacherib, and the analogy does facilitate the interpretation of what has often been felt to be a difficult metaphorical passage.
But the full examination of these three Scriptural prophecies in the light of the Sennacherib analogy must form the subject of further instalments.
(to be continued)