The Bible Story - Volume VI
Judah Is Strong, Israel Is Weak HAVING sent to the king of Assyria for help against his enemies, Ahaz the king of Judah expected to learn that troops were coming from the north to assist him. (II Kings 16:7-8.) Instead, a messenger brought a discouraging report that the army of Syria was approaching Jerusalem from the south.
A Hired Friend Again the best warriors of Judah readied themselves to defend their capital. But Rezin, the Syrian king, had no intention of repeating a futile attack against such strong fortifications. His army moved safely on past Jerusalem, then struck some nearby towns. By the time troops could spill out of Jerusalem and start pursuing the attackers, the Syrians were well on their way north with thousands of captives and loot, leaving the towns in ruins.
The soldiers of Judah were too late to overtake the attackers, who returned victoriously to Damascus, the Syrian capital, where their captives became slaves. (II Chronicles 28:1-5.) Even this tragedy for Judah failed to move Ahaz to turn from idolatry. But just when he was most discouraged and fearful, he received the exciting report that the Assyrians had attacked and captured Damascus, and that Rezin, king of the Syrians, had been killed (II Kings 16:9.)
Ahaz was jubilant. He was convinced that his costly gifts to Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king, had proved to be a worthwhile bribe. He planned an immediate trip to Damascus, which was occupied by the Assyrian king. Ahaz hoped to talk Tiglath-pileser into moving westward and besieging Samaria.
The king of Judah went to Damascus and talked with the Assyrian king, who had made his own plans and was indifferent to those of Ahaz. He made it plain that he had already carried out any obligation having to do with gifts Ahaz had given him.
Ahaz returned to Jerusalem with the bleak outlook of having to deal with several enemies, particularly that of King Pekah of Israel, without the aid of a strong ally. He needed help desperately, but he preferred not to look to God for it. Instead he foolishly reasoned that the pagan Syrian gods disliked him and so had given the Syrians victory over Judah. He decided to sacrifice to the Syrian gods in an effort to appease them and win them over to helping him. (II Chronicles 28:23.)
Ahaz was so obsessed with this ridiculous idea that before he left Damascus he sent orders to Urijah, high priest at the temple at Jerusalem, to build an altar like one he had seen in Damascus and to set it in front of God's altar toward the temple gate. Messengers brought drawn plans for the altar to Urijah. Although Urijah was a high-ranking servant of God, he gave orders that the altar should be constructed and should replace the sacred one that had long been in use. (II Kings 16:10.)
Urijah feared that Ahaz would demand his life if he failed to do this abominable thing that was contrary to God's commands. (Exodus 20:2225; 25:40; 26:30; 27:1-8; 38:1-7.) Obviously the high priest wasn't dedicated to the duty of his high office. Otherwise, he would have refused to build the pagan altar, and would have relied on God for safety. It had always been common knowledge among the Israelites that they should not make sacrifices on any altar other than God's altar, even if it were made after the same pattern. (Joshua 22:11-30.)
As soon as Ahaz returned to Jerusalem, one of the first things he did was to go to the temple and look at the new altar. Satisfied that it was like the Syrian altar he had seen, he proceeded to use it for the first time by making sacrifices to Syrian gods. This, in front of the temple, was an act of contempt for God. (II Kings 16:11-13.)
Israel and Judah at War There followed other brazen deeds by Ahaz. He gave orders to the high priest that the main objects that had to do with ceremonial worship of God should be moved to different locations around the temple area. (II Kings 16:14.) This was contrary to the way God had established their positions. (Exodus 40:6-7.) Most of the remaining gold or silver articles and furnishings both inside and outside the temple were removed and melted down for reuse due to their metallic value. In spite of this desecration, faithful followers of God still came in dwindling numbers to worship at the temple. Ahaz put a stop to that by closing the temple and forbidding any sacrificing except to pagan gods. (II Kings 16:15-18; II Chronicles 28:24.)
This was a tragic time in the history of man. God's patience, much greater than that of the most enduring human being, was tried to an extreme. To add to what he had done at the temple, the king of Judah decreed that altars should be constructed in the major cities and towns of the land to establish national worship of Syrian gods. (II Chronicles 28:25.)
Ahaz hoped that these pagan idols would be so pleased by another nation turning to them that they would not only protect Judah from surrounding enemies, but would somehow release Ahaz from having to pay regular tribute to Assyria, something Tiglath-pileser had demanded of Ahaz when the king of Judah was in Damascus. He was anxious not to let his subjects learn that the kingdom had fallen into such serious debt to the nation he had hoped would remain an ally.
Growing idolatry in Judah might not have been quite so abominable in God's sight if Ahaz and the people had never known of the only real God. With most of them it was a matter of choosing between their Creator and lifeless idols. This wasn't much of a compliment to the One who had given them life. As Ahaz constantly feared would happen, the report finally came that King Pekah of Israel and his army had left Samaria and were headed southward. Ahaz had to decide whether to keep the army in Jerusalem and risk attacks on other towns in Judah, or send his troops out to meet Pekah's. He decided to meet the enemy, just as the angry God of Israel intended.
On a plain north of Jerusalem the two armies of Israel and Judah came against each other in tragic strife, inasmuch as the participants came from all twelve tribes of the whole of Israel. Some of the first men to be slain were of high rank in the government of Judah, including the prime minister, the governor of the royal palace and an officer who was a close relative of Ahaz. The quick loss of men like these threw fear into the foremost ranks of the soldiers of Judah. That fear was obvious to Pekah's troops, who waded in among them with growing fervor and ferocity.
All day long the sound and fury of bloody battle continued. By nightfall one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers of Judah were dead on the wide field of fighting. (II Chronicles 28:5-7.)
Most of what was left of the army of Judah fled back to Jerusalem, leaving Pekah's victorious troops to plunder nearby towns and capture the inhabitants. When the pillagers left for Samaria, they took with them two hundred thousand men, women and children, as well as a huge amount of loot.
Israel Relents — Somewhat Herded along by its captors, this great crowd was almost within sight of Samaria when a group of prominent men of Israel met the returning army. The group's spokesman was a prophet named Oded, who addressed the top officers of the soldiers of Israel.
"Who are these people with you?" the prophet asked. "They are captives we took in Judah," the army commander replied proudly. "Probably you already heard that we all but destroyed the army of Ahaz. Then we captured these people to become servants in our nation."
"This is against God's will," Oded firmly stated after glancing over the foremost of the miserable captives. "You didn't win a victory over Judah because you were more righteous or more battle-wise. God gave you the ability to defeat Judah in war to punish them for their sins. But capturing these people was a cruel and unnecessary deed. They are our brothers and sisters because of our common ancestors who came out of Egypt. To regard them as servants is wrong. If you keep them in bondage, God's wrath will come on Samaria. The sins of Israel are already too great and too many to have this thing added." (II Chronicles 28:8-11.)
"Then what do you suggest we do with these prisoners?" the commander asked in an irritable tone.
"Release them so that they can return to Judah," was Oded's simple answer.
"Let them go after all the trouble we've taken to get them here?" the commander sputtered angrily. "Do you actually think that just because you are a prophet anyone is going to take you seriously in this matter?"
By now a growing crowd from Samaria had come up behind the leaders of Israel, who drew closer around Oded and the army officers.
"All of us here agree with Oded," one of the leaders answered the startled commander. "We of Israel have done many things to anger God. If we take these people as servants, who knows what punishment will come to us? Do not move them one step farther into Israel! And don't take for yourselves any of the booty you forced them to carry with them!"
The officers stared at those around them. The commander wasn't accustomed to being told by a civilian what to do, but not knowing how the king stood on the matter, he hesitated to take a stand against Oded and these men of high position. After a few moments of glaring at his opposers, he barked a command to his officers and aides and strode angrily away. The crowd from Samaria watched in silence as the army of Israel solemnly filed by on its way to the capital. (II Chronicles 28:12-14.)
Aided by the crowd that had joined them, the leaders of Israel started the task of taking stock of the loot from Judah. >From it they obtained clothing and shoes for that part of the captives who had been seized at night while in bed, and had been given no time to properly dress.
From the food taken from Judah the captives were given a meal that was long overdue. Then they were accompanied back toward Judah as far as the city of Jericho, which had been built on a different site from the Jericho that had been destroyed. Donkeys carried the elderly people and cripples, who had suffered from being forced to march toward Samaria.
From Jericho it was only a few miles to the various towns of northern Judah from which the people had been taken. Having delivered them to their country, the men of Israel returned to Samaria and their hometowns to the north, hopeful that God would be merciful to the ten tribes because of what had been done for the captives from Judah. (II Chronicles 28:15.)
Ahaz, brooding over the defeat of his army by that of northern Israel, was relieved to learn that his captured people had been returned. But instead of thanking God, who had made it possible through His followers in Israel, he continued in idolatry throughout the remaining years of his life. He was buried in Jerusalem, but not in the royal tombs of the kings of Judah. Obviously God decided which kings, because of their obedience to Him, should be buried in the royal sepulchers, and caused those who had charge of the burials to make the proper decisions. (II Chronicles 28:26-27.)
Meanwhile... Years before the death of Ahaz, King Pekah of Israel was murdered according to the plan of a man named Hoshea, who had schemed to do away with Pekah so that he could become ruler. (II Kings 15:30; 17:1.) Civil war followed. Hoshea had to ask the Assyrians for help to restore him to the throne.
Hoshea followed in the evil ways of the preceding kings, but not with the idolatrous fervor most of the others had practiced.
During his reign the Assyrians, led by King Shalmaneser, again came to Samaria. Hoshea didn't have the military strength to resist tribute. He submitted to Shalmaneser and gave him costly gifts and the promise of regular tribute and even allegiance. (II Kings 17:2-3.)
Satisfied with how matters had turned out, the Assyrians went on to further conquests, leaving Hoshea as little more than a puppet king whose conduct would have to favor Assyrian interests if Hoshea wanted to retain rulership of the ten tribes of Israel. Hoshea tried to squirm out of his miserable situation by seeking a strong ally. He sent messengers to the king of Egypt, who was a powerful ruler at that time, to suggest that both nations should unite against Assyria to prevent the invader out of the north from taking them over one by one.
The king of Egypt took measures for the defense of his nation, but did little to help Israel. Hoshea, meanwhile, was so certain that Egypt would unite with his nation against Assyria that he refused to pay the regular tribute. At the same time, someone in Hoshea's employ sold information to the king of Assyria that Hoshea was planning an alliance with Egypt. Shalmaneser was angered to learn that the ruler of Israel would dare scheme against him. He immediately sent a small part of his army to Samaria, where Hoshea was questioned by Assyrian officers.
"Why haven't we received the regular tribute?" they asked.
The Result of Godlessness "If you didn't receive it, those who took it to Assyria must have been robbed and killed," Hoshea untruthfully stated. "I have been meaning to contact your king to ask if they stayed in Assyria after delivering their valuable cargo."
"Why do you waste words?" one of the officers asked. "We have sources of information right here in Samaria. We know that the tribute wasn't sent."
"You question the word of the king of Israel?" Hoshea indignantly sputtered.
"We do," the officer replied. "And we know that you are guilty of conspiring with King So of Egypt against Assyria!"
Hoshea's forced indignant expression faded to one of genuine panic as Assyrian soldiers closed in on him. The royal guard was powerless to help because it had been outnumbered and removed by the Assyrians. The Israelite soldiers realized that any opposition to their enemies would bring the entire Assyrian army down on Samaria.
"You are under arrest for plotting against King Shalmaneser!" the ashen-faced Hoshea was told.
Stunned beyond argument or resistance, Hoshea quietly went with his captors, who took him to his own dungeon in Samaria and clapped him in chains. He was released after the delayed tribute was paid, plus a heavy bail. This happened in the sixth year of Hoshea's reign, which continued for three more years. (II Kings 17:4.)
The Bible doesn't mention Hoshea much after that. Whatever his final fate, the fate of his kingdom, comprised of the ten tribes of Israel, was worse. Shortly after Hoshea was imprisoned, Shalmaneser again came westward with his entire army to overrun parts of Syria and Israel. (II Kings 18:9.) His goal was Samaria, which he surrounded by thousands of his troops. The outnumbered army of Israel, mostly bottled up in the capital, dared not come out to attack. As long as the invaders stayed, the people in the capital remained prisoners. Meanwhile, Samaria's walls proved to be so strong and well manned that the Assyrians had to be content with waiting till the besieged Israelites would become so short of food and water that they had to surrender.
A week passed, but there was no sign of distress from Samaria. Then a month passed. Two months went by. Then a third. Shalmaneser had come west prepared for several weeks of stay in Israel, but now his food was running low and water was a problem. It had to be hauled from towns near Samaria to the Assyrian camps that had been set up around the capital. To increase the food supply, Assyrian troops combed the nearby territory and towns to take their needs.
The weeks went on, but there was no sign of weakening from Samaria. From time to time the Assyrians attacked the city, but always were driven back by showers of arrows, spears and stones. This didn't greatly discourage Shalmaneser, who believed that each time was the final effort of the Israelites to defend Samaria before hunger and thirst forced a surrender. But the city was so well supplied that the siege dragged on for two years!