The Bible Story - Volume VI
A Righteous King HEZEKIAH'S messengers were sent throughout Israel and Judah to spread the news of the reopening of the temple at Jerusalem. But they were scoffed at and threatened by idol-worshippers, especially in the territories of Manasseh, Ephraim and Zebulun. (II Chronicles 30:1-10.)
Greatest Passover Since Solomon "Don't try to convince us we should worship someone we can't see!" the messengers were told. "Go back to your temple and prostrate yourselves, or you might find yourselves prostrate here in Israel for reasons you don't like!"
But not all the Israelites laughed at or ridiculed the messengers. Many of Manasseh, Ephraim, Asher, Issachar and Zebulun welcomed the news from Judah. Most of these, among many others, managed to get to Jerusalem before the appointed time. The city swarmed with people eager to observe the Passover.
Filled with zeal, bands of them roamed through streets and buildings, ferreting out hidden altars and pagan images that had been used during the reign of idolatrous Ahaz. The altars were torn down and thrown into the gushing stream called Kidron, to be washed far from Jerusalem by the spring torrent.
The king of Judah was elated at the way the Passover turned out. It proved to be the greatest in attendance, as well as the most joyous, since the time of Solomon! There was only one temporarily adverse note. A few of the people, even including some priests, had failed to properly prepare themselves, ceremonially and mentally, for a fitting observation of the Passover.
When Hezekiah discerned this, he asked God to pardon the careless ones. Because he was obedient to God, his prayer was answered, and for a week there was joyous worship in the Days of Unleavened Bread, a time that God's Church still observes by praising the Creator in word and music, but not through meat sacrifices on altars.
The people were so enthusiastic that the government and church leaders took counsel and decided to continue worship services for another week. Hezekiah and the princes gladly arranged for two thousand bullocks and seventeen thousand sheep to be brought in to make more feasting possible. On the last day the priests asked God's blessing on those present, who dispersed with thankfulness that they had been able to come and enjoy the occasion. (II Chronicles 30:11-27.)
After leaving the temple, all the people didn't return to their homes immediately. Most of the men traveled throughout Judah, seeking idols and idol-worshipping places as they had done in Jerusalem. Zealously they smashed the images, cut down sacred groves and tore apart the altars. Those few who still favored these objects offered no resistance, not wishing to be recognized as idolaters.
The horde of idol-destroyers then swept northward into Israel to successfully continue the purge, but not without opposition. Some of the owners of images there tried to defend them, but failed because of the inspired eagerness of the followers of God. Ultimately they cleaned most of the pagan objects out of all Israel. Then they returned to their homes. (II Chronicles 31:1.)
Meanwhile, Hezekiah set about reestablishing a more permanent order of matters at the temple, including the specific ranks, courses and duties of the priests and other Levites. He planned how functions could be improved by more closely conforming to the manner in which they were carried out when the temple was new. (I Chronicles 23:1-6.)
Hezekiah also decided how much the king should contribute for offerings. (II Chronicles 31:3.) David, Solomon and other conscientious kings of Judah had furnished much for special offerings. Hezekiah wanted to follow their good example. (II Samuel 8:9-12; I Kings 8:5, 63; I Chronicles 22:2-4, 14-16; II Chronicles 7:4-5, etc.)
It Pays to Tithe Also, in the times of the kings who followed God, the people supplied the needs of the Levites and the temple by paying tithes. Hezekiah reminded the people of this tithe. The response was more than enough. During the months that followed, there was such a surplus of animals, grain, wine, oil, honey and valuables that places had to be prepared to store or keep them.
The overabundance from the people reflected God's blessing on Judah because of the obedience of the king and his example and influence. (II Chronicles 31:2-12, 20-21.)
This change for the better didn't mean that there would be no trouble in the nation from then on. Judah was still under the burden of paying regular tribute to Assyria because of the heavy commitment made by King Ahaz. Besides, the Philistines were a constant threat from the west.
At that time the army of Judah wasn't very powerful, but in time Hezekiah patiently brought it up to much greater strength. A surprise attack on the Philistines pushed them back westward to the city of Gaza, their capital, only a few miles from the Great Sea (Mediterranean). Thus were regained some of the towns that had formerly belonged to Judah. (II Kings 18:1-8.)
Encouraged by this triumph over one ancient enemy nation, Hezekiah continued to build up his army. About twelve years after he had become king, he at last felt that his fighting force was strong enough to repel invasion by the most formidable army of that time — that of Assyria.
Hezekiah then did something he had long wanted to do. It was time for paying the regular tribute to the king of Assyria. Instead of paying it, the king of Judah sent a message to Sennacherib, king of Assyria, informing him that Judah could no longer be considered one of Assyria's vassal nations, and therefore it owed no tribute. (II Kings 18:7.)
This was a bold act against such a powerful leader, but Hezekiah felt that it was a necessary step. He wasn't overly concerned about Sennacherib's reaction. As a matter of further preparedness, however, he heightened Jerusalem's walls and strengthened the fortifications. He believed in doing all that he could to prepare for the worst. Whatever he couldn't do for Judah would have to come as protection from God. (II Chronicles 32:5-8.)
The Conquering Assyrians A few months after Hezekiah's message was sent to Sennacherib, a startling report was speedily carried into Jerusalem.
"Hordes of Assyrian soldiers are swarming southward west of Samaria, and are invading us through western Judah!" Hezekiah was informed. "They're swallowing up all our towns that are in their path!" (II Chronicles 32:1; II Kings 18:13.)
"It would be foolish to pursue them," one of Hezekiah's officers Observed. "Perhaps they're going to invade Egypt. If they plan a full-scale attack against Judah, why would they travel so far beyond Jerusalem?"
"That's what I want to know," Hezekiah said. "Send scouts and lookouts to find out all they can and report as soon as possible."
When the scouts sent messengers back to Jerusalem, it was with the discouraging news that the Assyrians had thoroughly plundered the towns in their path, and had made captives of the citizens. They had halted at the walled city of Lachish on the main highway to Egypt. They were besieging Lachish, which could indicate that Lachish was as far west as they planned to go.
The king of Judah was troubled. It was evident to him that this invasion was the result of his refusal to pay tribute to Sennacherib. A showdown at Jerusalem obviously wasn't very far away. Hezekiah called an immediate meeting of his advisors to determine what should be done next for the defense of the capital.
They decided that the most effective thing they could do, in the probable event the Assyrians came to Jerusalem, was to cut off the water supply by plugging up wells and springs outside the city. This was done after rural residents had stored much water in hidden places, although this measure was certain to bring hardship to farmers and stockmen. A crew of many workers even managed to divert and cover the stream called Kidron, so that it wouldn't be recognizable or easily accessible.
The king carried out every possible emergency measure. More shields and weapons were hastily produced, including machines that would loose showers of arrows and spears. Officers and leaders were assigned to various areas to keep people organized for resistance to invasion. (II Chronicles 32:2-6.)
By this time a large part of the citizens of Jerusalem and its environs were filled with fear, having heard that a gigantic Assyrian army was about to swallow up the whole nation of Judah and take the people into slavery as the invaders had done with the unrepentant inhabitants of the kingdom of Israel. (II Kings 18:9-12.)
Hezekiah was troubled by this fearful mood of his subjects. Now that so many of them had turned back to God, he had hoped that their faith in God would be stronger. But at the same time he realized that it was difficult to be calm with multiple thousands of enemy soldiers not many miles away. He tried to encourage them by going to the main gates of the city, where he could contact the largest crowds and speak directly to them.
"Don't be dismayed by what you have heard of the Assyrians," he told the people, who gathered in large numbers to hear him. "The army of the invaders is truly a powerful one. But our power can be even greater if we trust in God to strengthen us. Remain obedient to Him, and there will be no reason to be afraid."
The king's remarks soon spread to others who hadn't been present, giving them assurance and greater will to prepare and to resist if necessary. (II Chronicles 32:7-8.)
The King Wavers Later, alone in his quarters, the king paced the floor. It wasn't that his faith in God's protection had suddenly vanished. It was that he was wondering how much more hardship and loss of life God would allow in Judah before rescuing the nation from the Assyrians.
"Perhaps I have been too stubborn," Hezekiah thought. "Perhaps my refusal to pay tribute will cost the lives of many of my people."
The king of Judah thereupon made a decision that changed matters somewhat, though not necessarily for the better. Messengers shortly afterward delivered a message to the Assyrians at Lachish. (II Kings 18:14.) It was for Sennacherib. Hezekiah trusted that it would be forwarded to the Assyrian emperor, wherever he was.
The message reached Sennacherib, whose face broke into a satisfied grin as he heard these words interpreted for him in his native tongue:
"It is obvious that my decision not to pay tribute to you has caused you great offense, for which I am regretful and ask your pardon. My nation does not want to indulge in war. Advise me what you require of Judah for the departure of your entire army without warfare. Whatever you ask will be paid."
(Signed) Hezekiah, King of Judah
Not long afterward Hezekiah received this reply from the king of Assyria:
"Deliver to me three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Then I will take my army back to Assyria in peace."
(Signed) Sennacherib, King of Assyria and the World
Hezekiah was stunned by this demand, which today would be equal to several millions of our dollars. Nevertheless, the king of Judah had promised to pay it, and he was determined to do so in spite of a difficult situation. That situation was that he didn't have the required amount of gold and silver. His personal finances and palace treasures couldn't meet such a demand. Taxing the people, even locally, would require too much time. Besides, such a measure wouldn't be good for the morale of his subjects, to whom he had recently spoken concerning faith in God for their protection.
There was only one resort — the temple. Much as he regretted having to do it, Hezekiah gave confidential orders to the Levites that the gold and silver of the temple, including the precious metal that had been applied to the doors and pillars, should be removed and brought to the palace. This, with what Hezekiah could supply from palace treasures, added up to the amount Sennacherib had demanded. The total treasure, intended to insure Judah against war with the invaders, was dispatched to the Lachish area and turned over to Sennacherib's officers, who had it conveyed to their emperor. (II Kings 18:13-16.)
The Insolence of Plunderers Anxious days passed for Hezekiah. He constantly hoped to hear that the Assyrians were starting to clear out of Judah. Instead of receiving encouraging news, he was shocked by the report that thousands of Assyrian troops and cavalry were heading toward Jerusalem.
At first Hezekiah tried to calm himself with the thought that the Assyrians were simply going to pass by the capital of Judah on their way to their home country. Perhaps Sennacherib was going to stop and thank him for the gold and silver. This wishful thinking came to an end when he saw the first columns of the tremendous army come over a rise and soon spread out around the city.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians flocked to the broad wall top to watch the invaders mass before them. Three Assyrian officers and their aides took up a position from where they could command the best attention of the onlookers. (II Kings 18:17.)
"I am Tartan, King Sennacherib's treasurer and general!" one of the richly uniformed men loudly shouted. "My king has sent us to give a message to your king! Send him out on the wall to hear it!"
"Sennacherib's general has a message from his king for you, sire," an excited servant quickly informed Hezekiah.
"I know," Hezekiah nodded. "I heard his raucous voice and his insolent tone. I don't intend to jump at his command. If the king of Assyria must use representatives, so shall I."
A little later three of Hezekiah's men of top rank appeared on the wall. They were Eliakim, Shebna and Joah. These were the steward of the royal household, the king's chief secretary and his official recorder and keeper of the archives. After they were introduced, another of the three Assyrian officers waved for attention.
"I am Rab-shakeh, chief of the wine cellar and cupbearer to the world's greatest king!" he called out in Hebrew. "We didn't think your king would dare expose himself to us! My king wants to know how the faint-hearted Hezekiah can protect his nation from destruction by locking himself and his army inside high walls! Surely he wasn't foolish enough to believe that the miserable bribe he recently sent would buy freedom from us!" (II Kings 18:18-20.)
Standing by a window where he could hear every spiteful word, the king of Judah suddenly felt very ill when he learned that he had made the tribute payment in vain. The treacherous Sennacherib's promise to leave Judah without more war was merely a ruse to bring reproach on Hezekiah before the mighty Assyrian army moved to strike at Jerusalem!