The Rod of God's Anger
A Study In Prophecy
Parts 1 and 2 have already dealt with 'the use of Sennacherib the Assyrian, the "rod of God's anger", as a background model of the events prophesied of Israel's invader and that invader's clash with Michael in Daniel 11. It now only remains to notice the backgrounds of Micah 5 and Zechariah 14, both of whom colour their descriptions of the last great conflict with allusions going back to incidents of Sennacherib's campaign in Judah in the days of Hezekiah.
The fifth chapter of the Prophet Micah is notable for the striking fashion in which it alludes to, and shows the relation between, the First and Second Advents. Most of Micah's prophecy consists of short cameo visions each more or less self-contained and for the most part foreseeing some one or another aspect of the Messianic Age and Israel's relation to it. In this instance the vision commences at verse 2 which in the Hebrew Bible is the actual commencement of the chapter and finishes at verse 9. Verse 10 embarks upon a different subject. It is within vv 2-9 that this rather noteworthy reference to "the Assyrian", in connection with the assumption of regal power by Christ at the end of the present world-age, is found.
The vision opens with an address to the little town of Bethlehem, out of which is to come the Messiah who is to rule Israel at the Time of the End. The RSV presents it "You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days". This is clearly a prophecy of the First Advent of Christ, born, as is so well known, at Bethlehem. That He was not mere man, of the stock of Adam, is stressed by the statement that His origin is from of old, from ancient days. As John says in his gospel "He was in the beginning with God". As Son of David, He comes from Bethlehem, but as Son of God His "origin is from of old". But the rulership does not commence at once. Vs 3 describes an interregnum, a period during which God will "give them up until she who is in travail has brought forth". Only then will the "rest of his brethren return to the people of Israel". That, surely, is the travail of Israel, the national suffering and scattering, consequent upon unbelief and apostasy, which commenced in the time of Micah when the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities began. They continue throughout history, 'the Times of the Gentiles', until those beginnings of national restoration which are evident today as one sign of the closing of this present Age. Then comes the true Messianic rule; "He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now shall he be great to the ends of 'the earth" (v 4). This simile of the shepherd feeding the flock is used many times in Scripture to denote the beneficent work of Christ in the world in the day of His kingdom. "He will feed his flock like a shepherd" (Isa. 40.11); "I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them" (Jeremiah 23.4); "I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, says the Lord God" (Ezekiel 34.15). These and many other allusions liken the work of the Messianic kingdom to that of a shepherd caring for his flock.
Naturally enough, then, v 5 introduces the assurance that when that day dawns there will be deliverance from the last great oppressor of Israel, the power which opposes the incoming Messianic kingdom, and it is this power which in v 5 is denoted "the Assyrian", the counterpart of Sennacherib in the days of Hezekiah. "This shall be peace, when the Assyrian comes into our land and treads in our palaces, that we will raise against him seven shepherds and eight princes of men... they shall de1iver us from the Assyrian when he comes into our land and treads within our border" (vv 5-6). The background remains the same; just as Sennacherib invaded Judah in the days of Hezekiah and was repulsed by Divine intervention, so now, at the end of this age, the greater "Assyrian" is to be likewise repulsed and Israel delivered. There is, however, an additional detail; the deliverance is to be at the instance or by the power of "seven shepherds" and "eight princes of men", obviously agents of God in the actual deliverance. What is the meaning of this somewhat obscure phrase?
The symbol of the shepherd is easy enough to interpret. Christ himself is the great Millennial shepherd who will nourish and protect, not only Israel, but all mankind, in that blessed day. With Christ will be associated His Church, the company of the faithful of this present Christian Age, taken to be with him and resurrected to heavenly conditions at the time of His Second Advent. "Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father": "they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years" (Matt. 13. 43; Rev. 20.4). These, obviously are the "seven shepherds"; seven is the symbolic number of completeness; the number of the Church is complete. These, associated with Christ their Head, will be operating from heaven in this work of bringing the power of evil to a close and administering the Millennial kingdom of righteousness. It remains, though, that Israel upon earth, converted and waiting on God in faith, stands in need of direct and close-at-hand guidance and leadership in what might be termed the practical down-to-earth details of their attitude and conduct in the face of the threat that overshadows them. This is where the "eight princes of men" have their place.
The word here used occurs five times only in the OT and has the significance of a prince or ruler who has been consecrated to his position by anointing and hence is bound to God's service. Eight as a number is a symbol of renewed life, of resurrection. Our Lord rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath, on the eighth day. In the Levitical rituals the cleansed leper, entering upon a time of renewed life, had to bring his thanksgiving offering for the cleansing ceremonial on the eighth day. The eighth day thus becomes a symbol associated with conditions in God's Kingdom. The eight princes denote a company of men associated with resurrection and renewed life, although their duties and achievement have to do with an Israel which as yet is still of this world-age and is still under assault by the powers of evil.
Such a company is that indicated, albeit some-what obscurely, in the Scriptures, as the band of Israel's heroes of old time who will appear on earth at the end of the Age to guide latter-day Israel through the supreme crisis. Known in Christian circles variously as "Old Testament Saints" or "Ancient Worthies", the Biblical designation is "Judges" (as in Isa. 1.26) the term that is used for the national rulers of Israel in the days before the monarchy. They were sterling men of faith of old time, from Abraham to John the Baptist. These "princes" will present themselves to Israel at her time of greatest need, to take up their duties as governors in Israel (Zech. 12.5), working in close harmony with the Lord from heaven in assured faith that He will deliver. In a very real sense these seven shepherds and eight princes are pre-figured by Isaiah the prophet of God and Hezekiah the king of Judah offering themselves as joint channels of the Lord's message to the people at that similar though lesser crisis so long ago. In a manner not clearly to be defined but none the less certain these men will spearhead Israel's resistance to the enemy. Verse 6 indicates that the invaders will themselves become subject to the nation they had attacked and sought to enslave. What that implies is better defined in vv 7-8. Israel shall be on the one hand in the midst of the nations like dew from the Lord and showers upon the grass; this indicates the beneficent work of Christ, through Israel, bringing blessings of peace, security, new life and happiness to all mankind. On the other hand Israel is to be in the midst of the nations like a lion among the beasts of the forest and a young lion among the sheep. This indicates the unrelenting enmity of the social order, in the forefront of which Israel is stationed, to all forms of evil and injustice and oppression. This is the time of which Isaiah spoke when he said "they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 1.9).
So much for the preview of Micah. Now it is necessary to turn to a later prophet, Zechariah, who also saw in vision the events that must close this Age, and, like his predecessors, saw them in pictures that were shaped and coloured in part by the deeds of Sennacherib.
Zechariah was a most versatile prophet. He drew background material for his prophecies from a wide range of historical subjects and in many ways his is the most colourful of all the Old Testament pen-pictures describing Israel's apostasies, rejection and restoration. Consequently he uses the Sennacherib theme to illustrate only one short section of his visions, that comprised by chap. 14. 1-3. These three verses form the climax to his entire prophecy; the usage he makes of the theme is doubly impressive. Like Micah and Daniel, he sees the powers of this world advancing upon the restored and purified Israel nation ensconced in their holy city and trusting in faith that God will deliver. He sees what appears to be the inevitable victory of the invader and then at the eleventh hour God goes forth, as He did in the days of Sennacherib. in the irresistible power of Heaven's might, and utterly discomfits the arrogant enemy.
The thirteenth chapter leads up to this crisis by tracing Israel's continued rejection of Christ from His First to his Second Advents and the separation of that people into believing and unbelieving entities. This culminates in the eventual establishment in the Holy Land of a community which in the main has developed true and steadfast faith in God and in His intention to deliver when the crisis comes, although in the outcome not all of them retain that faith. It is at this time that the invader advances and the people await his coming; it is here that the likeness to Sennacherib's Judean campaign subsists (For full exposition of these chapters see "Zechariah— prophet of 'the Restoration" BSM 1993-95). "I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, but the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations as when he fought in the day of battle" (ch.14.2,3). The outcome is that Israel takes great spoil from the defeated enemy and divides it just as was done in the days of King Jehoshaphat and the Moabite invasion.
"The city shall be taken". The word means to gather or encompass, as when one takes birds or fishes in a net. Hosea 4.3 is an example of this usage of the word, and here in this same verse the same word is used for 'gather' when the Lord says He will "gather" all nations against Jerusalem. It does not mean that the city is captured but that it is surrounded without the enemy being able to penetrate its defences. This is precisely what happened in the days of Hezekiah. Sennacherib uses the same term in his account of the siege: "Hezekiah himself, like a bird in a cage, I shut up within Jerusalem royal city" What he failed to record was that he never opened the cage. Likewise in this preview of the end of the Age, the people of the Lord are hemmed in by their foes but they are not taken captive: the defences hold firm.
"...the houses rifled, and 'the women ravished". This is an evident allusion to Sennacherib's invasion. Prior to the dramatic defeat of his besieging armies surrounding Jerusalem, he demanded, and received, heavy tribute from Hezekiah. Says the great king in his narrative of the campaign. "I besieged Hezekiah of Judah who had not submitted to my yoke, and I captured forty-six of his strong cities... I took 200,150 people, small and great, male and female and horses, mules, asses, camels, oxen and innumerable sheep as spoil... I took vengeance upon any man who came forth from the city. All who came outside the great gate of the city were captured and led off... his trusty warriors, he had brought into Jerusalem to protect it deserted him.., he made submission with thirty talents of gold, eight hundred talents of silver, precious stones of all kinds, pearls, thrones adorned with ivory, sandalwood , ebony, the contents of his treasure house, his daughters, the women of his palace and his male and female slaves." All this did the Assyrian take and send to Nineveh, the treasure for the adornment of his city and the women for the rest of their lives to be at the mercy of their captors. One can hardly expect mules and camels, ivory thrones and the like, to be objects of quest in the greater fulfilment at the end of the Age. The rifling of the houses and so on seen by Zechariah was expressed in terms reminiscent of Sennacherib but in fact pointed forward to a much more "modern" despoiling of the land and people. Try to imagine the nation losing its trade potential with, and the support it receives from, other nations, finding itself increasingly bereft of the armaments with which it has heretofore established and maintained its position. Then in the losing of all those benefits and advantages and aids which it can only preserve by continued alliance with the "kingdoms of this world", the prophet's words might be given a truly up-to-date meaning. Just as in Hezekiah's day he had to give up a great deal of his treasures and possessions before coming to the point of humble and implicit faith in God for deliverance; so now, it may be, the "chosen nation" will need to lose a considerable store of "this-world" advantages before it is in a true state of mind and heart to admit the saving power of "that world".
"Half of the city shall go forth into exile" (v.3l). Sennacherib's claim that many deserted the city, including the "trusty warriors" brought in to defend it, is corroborated by Isa. 22.3 "All your 'rulers' have fled together, without the bow they were captured. All of you who were found were captured, though they had fled far away" (RSV). Geikie's rendering of this passage is singularly impressive. "Thy nobles, fleeing as a body from the bow of the Assyrian, whom they expect to see presently, are taken prisoner by their archers, the vanguard of the enemy; all whom they find outside the gates, seeking to flee afar, are caught and put in chains". Zechariah saw this same thing repeated at the end of this Age. The word "half" in this verse does not mean necessarily an exact fifty per cent; it has the significance of dividing a portion and the phrase would be better translated a part or a portion go into exile. As then, so now, there is at the crisis a loss of faith on the part of some and a frantic endeavour to escape before it is too late. At the last moment they change their allegiance and take their side with the kingdoms of this world, abandoning the Holy Land and its people to what they feel is certain conquest. The only ones left are those whose faith is fixed in God. These are the ones who will pass through the crisis into the new Age then to begin, and find themselves indeed the "people of the Lord" who will cause the Law of the Lord to go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isa. 2.3). These are they who are "not cut off from the city"; immediately after the defection of the faithless, and the apparent advance of the enemy closing in for the kill. Then comes fulfilment of the stirring words in v 3. "Then shall the Lord go forth and fight against those nations as when he fought in the day of battle". There follows the awe-inspiring sight of the Most High descending in glory upon the Mount of Olives first to destroy the forces of evil and then to establish the kingdom of righteousness upon earth. All this is a picture of our Lord's Second Advent and the happenings that are associated therewith. Such things go beyond the present discussion. The Sennacherib analogy ends at verse 3 when, just as in that long-past day outside Jerusalem the angel of the Lord decimated the Assyrian host and sent the arrogant king with shame of face back to his own land, the Lord again intervenes in world affairs for the defence of His people. For the last time, the last great oppressor is vanquished and the people of faith delivered.