The Bible Story - Volume VI
The Sundial of Ahaz IN SPITE of the Prophet Isaiah's declaration that no harm would be done to Jerusalem by the Assyrians, there was tension and fear among some of the citizens. (II Chronicles 32:9-10, 18-20; II Kings 19:32-34.)
It was a dark night, and thousands upon thousands of enemy soldiers were out there where they couldn't be watched. The people of the city could only guess what the Assyrians were doing or preparing to do. Jewish records say this night was the evening of the Passover Festival, in the first spring month of the year.
A Fantastic Promise! "Not one arrow shall be shot against Jerusalem from an Assyrian bow."
That bit of prophecy from Isaiah's encouraging message kept running through Hezekiah's mind. Before dawn he arose and went up to one of the wall towers to see what the enemy would be doing when daylight came.
With the first gray light there was an odd but relieving discovery. There were no Assyrian soldiers in sight around the city. All that could be seen, when the sun rose, were many rows of pitched tents and some horses and chariots in the distant campsite.
"Perhaps it's a trick to try to draw some of our troops outside the wall," an officer observed. "All of them couldn't be sleeping this late."
The apparent absence of men in the vast Assyrian camp was a real puzzle. One guess was that the enemy troops were hiding in their tents.
Suddenly another army came into view in the southwest. Their banners soon proved them to be Assyrian. They marched into the quiet camp and a few of their number were seen to go scurrying about. Then they quickly reassembled and speedily departed northward. But still no one came out of the tents. Was this all some sort of trick?
"We have to learn what's going on, and the only way is to go out there and find out," Hezekiah told his officers. "But I don't want anyone ordered to go to the enemy camp to investigate. The fairest way would be to call for a few volunteers."
So many bold soldiers were curious about the Assyrians that there were far more volunteers than the number needed for the scout patrol outside Jerusalem's walls. Hezekiah and his officers, as well as many others on the wall top, watched the eager volunteers intently as they warily advanced toward the mass of tents.
The intrepid little band of investigators reached the enemy camp safely and cautiously approached the nearest tent. On peering inside, they saw only a pile of army blankets. A closer look, however, revealed dead Assyrian soldiers sprawled under the blankets!
The next few minutes were almost beyond the belief of the soldiers of Judah. They rushed from tent to tent to find corpses in every shelter. Tens of thousands of Assyrian soldiers had apparently died in their sleep of some mysterious cause! The whole besieging army was dead. This explained why Sennacherib and his other army had so suddenly departed northward.
When news of the death of the enemy was taken to Jerusalem, Hezekiah and the people were as dumbfounded as they were relieved. God had passed over His people and had punished the Assyrians just as He had done in Egypt under Moses on the first Passover.
A part of the army was sent out to seize anything of value left behind by the Assyrians. Later that day thousands of soldiers of Judah buried and counted the corpses, whose number came to one hundred and eighty-five thousand. (II Kings 19:35.)
A Pagan's Dilemma There was celebrating in Judah the next day, especially in Jerusalem. There was more than just music, dancing and feasting. The temple porch was packed with people who came that day, the 15th of the month, for the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, commemorating deliverance out of Egypt. Now they added praises to God and gave thanks for the great and mysterious miracle that had kept the Assyrians from Jerusalem. Probably there wasn't anyone more thankful than the king, who felt as though his nation had suddenly been freed from a deadly noose.
While the people returned to their farms and regular occupations and started repairing cities and towns damaged by the invaders, King Sennacherib and his other army moved on to Assyria without delay. Many months before, the arrogant Assyrian ruler had swept ruthlessly westward from his nation to the Great Sea and then southward to Egypt, cutting a wide path of conquests by virtue of the vast size of his army. To return to Nineveh with only a fraction of his fighting force was one of the most humiliating things that could happen to this profane and boastful man. But he couldn't stay away to avoid his disgraceful situation and yet continue to share the kingship. There were others who were anxious and ready to replace him. He was on the verge of regretting the statements he had made about the Creator. The strange annihilation of one of his two armies was something he couldn't help but connect with the God of Israel.
Nevertheless, after he returned to his capital he continued for years to worship in the shrine of the pagan god Nisroch, whom he regularly asked for help in holding the conquests he had made. As the years passed this didn't look very hopeful unless he could continually muster and train new armies, even though he had left many men in these cities and nations to try to keep them subject. (II Kings 19:36.)
If Sennacherib expected swift and powerful results because of his prayers and sacrifices to Nisroch, there was, of course, only disappointment. Nearly 29 years passed.
"Why is it that my god never performs any miracles for me?" he one day asked his advisors. "There are many reports that the God of Judah has done and still does great things for His people. Is there some secret way of really gaining the help of a god? If there is, I want to know!"
The scowling king accented his demand with a loud blow of his fist on the arm of his chair. There was a strained silence until one of the advisors hesitantly spoke up.
The Tables Are Turned "You have spoken of something difficult to discuss, sire," the man began. "Have you not heard how the Syrians, Moabites and certain other people make their most effective appeals to their gods?"
"I'll ask the questions," Sennacherib shouted impatiently. "Just tell me what you're talking about."
"I'm referring to the sacrificing of human beings," the advisor replied uneasily, "especially a firstborn son."
"Of course I've heard of that," the king snapped. "Do the people of Judah follow that custom?" "I know of no recent instance," was the answer. "But there is a legend that hundreds of years ago a HEBREW patriarch by the name of Abraham was commanded by God to kill his firstborn son and burn him on an altar. The legend goes that Abraham started to carry out his God's will, but at the last moment was prevented from causing his son's death. However, he had proved his willingness to obey his God. And God was so pleased that He not only rewarded Abraham, but also promised protection and prosperity to Abraham's descendants." (Genesis 22.)
The scriptural record of what happened to Sennacherib at that time is limited. Other records, though less dependable, tell about the Assyrian king's plan to gain help from his god Nisroch by going to greater extremes than those of the Syrians and Moabites. He was particularly impressed by the story of Abraham, even though Abraham hadn't been required to carry out God's original instructions. Sennacherib reasoned that if a god could be pleased by the sacrifice of a son, that god would be doubly pleased by the sacrilege of two sons.
The two sons he had in mind were Adrammelech and Sharezer, both of whom he was aware were strongly ambitious to succeed him as ruler of Assyria. He believed that if he could win Nisroch's favor, he would be given the power and success he needed to reestablish himself as what he had long claimed to be the greatest king in the world.
To carry out his diabolical plan, Sennacherib needed the help of trusted servants, at least one of whom turned out to be trustworthy to his sons instead of to him. When the sons heard what the king intended to do, they reversed matters by hiding in the pagan temple and slaying their father while he was bowed before the image of Nisroch. (II Kings 19:37; II Chronicles 32:21.)
With the king disposed of, it could have been a matter of which son would dispose of the other to gain the throne. But neither was to become a ruler. Even though their crime had been committed in secret, they were so strongly suspected that they realized it would mean death to remain in Nineveh or even anywhere in Assyria. They managed to slip out of the city and escape to Armenia, a nation to the north in whose land were the mountains on which Noah's ark came to rest after the flooding of the earth. (Genesis 8:4.)
The throne of Assyria was immediately taken over by a third son of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, who inherited his father's ability for arrogant boasting. Eventually he referred to himself as powerful, heroic, gigantic, colossal and the king of kings of Egypt, where his army won a major battle.
When news of Sennacherib's death reached the surrounding nations, the people of Judah and many in other countries felt that the God of Israel had caused the Assyrian king to die disgracefully before a pagan idol because of his insulting the true God, his attacks on Judah and his deceitfulness and threats. This resulted in increasing respect for Judah's God.
Hezekiah's Illness Meanwhile, we return to another part of the story 29 years before. Just when Hezekiah was at the peak of his power and usefulness and when Judah was reeling from Sennacherib's invasion, the king's health began to wane. The wearing pressures of months and years were taking their toll. Hezekiah's illness became so serious that he was soon confined to bed. Fearing that his life could be near its end, the king sent to the prophet Isaiah for help.
"There is nothing I can do for you," the prophet told the king, "except advise you to wind up all personal and state affairs that need your attention, especially those having to do with choosing your successor. God has purposed to take your life very soon."
Even though he realized that he was facing death, Hezekiah was shocked and dismayed to learn that God was going to let him die, obviously without answering a prayer from the prophet. On further thought, he realized that even the prayers of a man very close to God, such as Isaiah, couldn't always be expected to alter the purpose of the Creator of the universe.
Perhaps God had told Isaiah that his exhortation would be useless in this matter of when the king was to die. The situation didn't lessen Hezekiah's esteem for the value of prayer. He knew this was the time to do his own intense petitioning, regardless of the presence of his attendants and Isaiah. Twisting around so that he could hide his face toward the head of his bed, which was against a wall, he silently but fervently called on God.
"I beseech you not to take my life now," Hezekiah prayed. "Except for the times I have made foolish blunders, you know I have kept your laws. You promised long lives to the kings of Judah who would be obedient. If I have been useful until now, would I not continue to be useful over more years? Let me continue to be of service to you and your people. Extend my life long enough for me to bring a son into the world to take my place. Don't let the grave swallow me. From there how can I praise you or lead your people? At least don't take me until I can be sure that the Assyrians won't return to trouble our nation!" (II Kings 20:1-3.)
Hearing muffled sobs coming from the king's bed, Isaiah sadly turned and quietly left the room, whispering for the attendants to do the same for a while. As he passed through one of the palace court gardens on his way out, a clear voice came to him.
A Promise and a Miracle "Go back to the king, Isaiah. Tell him that I have heard the prayer that he has just uttered, and that I am aware of the causes of his tears.
Tell him that I shall heal him. Three days from now he will be able to walk to the temple and give thanks. (II Kings 20:5.) I shall add fifteen more years to his life. Hezekiah soon shall have the son he desires and time to carry out plans for the nation's continued prosperity. During the rest of his life I shall continue to protect Jerusalem for my own sake and that of my servant David. These blessings shall come to Hezekiah because of his obedience."
When Hezekiah heard Isaiah's surprising news, he was overjoyed. At the same time it was difficult for him to fully believe that God had so suddenly dropped His intention to take his life.
"You have given me great hope," he told the prophet, "but how can I be certain that I shall be healed in three days and be able to go to the temple? Is there any kind of unusual sign by which you can prove these things?"
Isaiah pondered for a few moments, then pointed through a window to an object in the adjoining court.
"There is the massive sundial of your father, Ahaz," the prophet observed. "The shadow cast by its gnomon on its steps clearly indicates the time of day. If God will promptly move that shadow backward or forward by ten steps, will you believe you will be healed? It's up to you to decide which way the shadow should be moved."
"It wouldn't be a great thing for the shadow to go forward supernaturally as it did when my father died," Hezekiah replied. "I'll believe I'll be healed if the shadow moves BACKWARD ten steps, which would be an even greater miracle."
In spite of the pain caused by inflammation in his body, especially when he moved, the king asked his attendants to prop him up so that he could distinctly see the shadow cast by the sundial pole across one of the steps that indicated the hours. After Hezekiah was fairly comfortable, Isaiah gestured for silence. (II Kings 20:8-11; II Chronicles 32:24.)
"I implore you, God of Israel," the prophet spoke out, "to set back the sundial shadow ten steps, so that the king of Judah shall witness your intent to heal him!"
Hezekiah, Isaiah and the attendants watched the heavens in intense fascination as the sundial shadow began to move BACKWARD!