<< 2 Kings 19: The Destruction of Sennacherib's Army >>
" Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the King of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shield, nor cast a bank against it. By the way that he came, by the same shall he return, and shall not come into this city, saith the Lord.” KINGS xix. 32 , 33.
THE second great empire of the world's early history was Assyria. That of Babylon was the first. In the vast and fertile plains watered by the Euphrates and the Tigris, arose those mighty nations; and burning with the lust of power, they extended their conquering efforts far and wide. They had an amazing career. They began in feeble communities. By constant growth and cultivation they attained to conditions of magnificence only equaled by the mightiest states of modern times; having capitals of a size and splendour which seem, as ancient history recounts their glories, almost beyond belief. After a lengthened existence they sank so low, that scarcely anything remained of them but their names, and certain vast mounds, the wonder of the wandering Arab. So passes the glory of the world.
" Ambition vast, at 'which the world grew pale,
Then points a moral, and adorns a tale."
Assyria, at the time of the siege of Jerusalem alluded to in our text, was at the summit of its extraordinary splendour. Nineveh was its capital, a city sixty miles in circuit, containing probably a million of inhabitants, and including in its palaces embellishments of art and magnificence only surpassed by the most splendid examples of modern times. It was an offshoot from Babel, and in time surpassed its parent state. We are informed in Genesis that Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went Ashur, and builded Nineveh" (x. 9-11).
Babylon and Assyria had a most interesting existence and history, as presented to us in Holy Writ. We meet with them first in the peculiarly allegorical portion of the Word; and they would therefore represent persuasions. or religions of that early time. (In fact, all ancient nations were embodied religions, their kings being the chief priests.) They next fixed themselves in towns and cities and governments and became immense empires, dominating the then known world; and lastly, when they disappeared as nations, they were still retained in the Divine Word, on account of their spiritual signification. Hence, we find Babylon in the book of Revelation, hundreds of years after its entire destruction as a nation and a city, as a symbol of the dreadful lust of spiritual power over the souls of men; that unhallowed lust which in Babel in very ancient ages, and in the Rome of more recent times has been the mother of delusion, uncharitableness, and persecution; the stimulant of separation, strife, and ill-will. Assyria was formed out of Babel: "Out of that land went Ashur, and builded Nineveh." In these simple words we have revealed to us the Catholicism and Protestantism of the very remote times, The same things under other names. The lust of power clothing itself in ceremony and superstition is Babel. The intellect protesting against delusion, striving for knowledge, intelligence, and rationality, denying the unproved to the extent sometimes of doubting all that cannot be exhibited to the senses, is Assyria.
The proselytizing spirit which craves influence not for real good, but for the sake of power, out of which both the Babel and the Assyria of ancient times arose, is what is really meant by hunting before the Lord, or Jehovah, which is ascribed to Nimrod: "Even as Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord." To hunt souls before the Lord, is to seek to proselytize men that the proselytizing zealots may rule over them, or make gain by them. It is to have a creed which may easily accord with pride, vanity, and selfishness, In a thousand. forms, and seek, by cajoling and vehement zeal, to obtain for it numerous adherents. The hunters of souls do not unfold the loving yet pure commandments of the Lord, and the requirements of the regenerate life, encouraging men to real virtue, and instituting upon doing right under all circumstances from the love of right; but they persuade, captivate, and ensnare men's minds, by flattering them in the pursuit of sensual objects and unworthy indulgences, tempering religion to the tastes of those they hope to gain, 'with a secret aim to the promotion of their own exaltation.
Of such hunters of souls the prophet Ezekiel speaks :-" Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing." " Will ye HUNT THE SOULS of my people, and will ye save the souls alive that come to you? And will ye pollute me among my people for handfuls of barley, and for pieces of bread, to slay the souls that should. not die, and to save the souls alive that should not live, by your lying to my people that hear your lies? Wherefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold I am against your pillows " (or soft flattering persuasions), "wherewith ye there HUNT THE SOULS to make them fly, and I will tear them from your arms, and will let the souls go, even THE SOULS THAT YE HUNT to make them fly." " Because with lies ye have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life " (xiii. 3, 18, 19, 20, 22).
Out of such hunting, then, in hoary antiquity Babel rose, and out of Babel came at length Assyria. But how small the beginning of the power of the Assyrians was at first, and how vast it became in the course of ages, we can only briefly tell.
Nineveh was founded in a region eminently suited to be the seat of a mighty empire, Where the-river Zab falls into the great and rapid river Tigris, there are the ruins which mark the spot where the great city stood for ages. Twenty miles long, and about twelve miles broad, as the mounds which cover the ruins indicate, was the enormous capital, the focus of the Assyrian power. There are now ample historical proofs that it had a king and strong government, more than two thousand years before the coming of Christ. So completely had Nineveh been ruined by its overthrow and destruction by fire, along with its last king, Sardanapalus, that up to a recent period nothing but shapeless mounds remained, So vast were they, that they were believed both by the inhabitants of the region and by travellers for many ages to be hills of natural formation. But recently, by the sagacity, skill, determination, and perseverance of several learned men, and pre-eminently of our own country man, Mr. Layard, these mounds have been explored, and found to contain remains of sculptures, painted walls, and other objects, so numerous and so varied, as to lay open once more the whole life of the nation. The appearance of the ancient Assyrians, - their dress, their modes of life, their religion, their palaces, are all portrayed on their sculptured slabs and walls. Their history, which had been inscribed in a language in arrow-headed letters, which had ceased to be used so long ago as the epoch of Alexander the Great, has been brought to light again, and all deciphered by the marvellous sagacity and industry of the learned. This extraordinary nation of antiquity may be said to have been called into existence again, to bear witness to the faithfulness and accuracy of the Bible, and to illustrate the Divine wisdom -of its teaching.
One of the most astonishing disclosures which has thus been 'brought to light is, that the greatest mound, that of Kouyunjic, was composed of the covered ruins of the palace of Sennacherib. His name has been deciphered on almost every slab and brick of the vast building; the archives of fourteen years of his reign have been made out from records upon tiles contained in a chamber which may be regarded as the record-room of the palace, with an account of his conquests, his victories, the plunder he made, and a likeness of himself.
On one slab is the following inscription, "Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment before the city of Lachish, I give permission for its slaughter."
In another record on a tablet of this king, it is stated that he obtained from Hezekiah, king of Judah, THIRTY talents of gold, exactly what is stated in the previous chapter of this book (v. 14). In "another portion of the same record, it is statecl," Hezekiah, king of Judah, who had not submitted to my authority, forty-six of his principal cities and fortresses, and villages depending upon them, of which I took no account, I captured, and carried away their spoil. I shut up himself within Jerusalem, his capital city."
This marvelous disentombment of records made by the monarchs themselves, buried for thousands of years, yet coeval withthe sacred writers, confirms to the utmost our confidence in the genuineness of Holy Writ; and thus prepares us for the higher wisdom which is enclosed in the spiritual lessons taught in the inner sense of the Word of God. Assyria in Scripture is the type of the rational faculty of the mind, and of men prone to the supremacy of the intellect. The intellect, in harmony with religion, is a glorious power, exalted, noble, God-honouring, capable of progress, both heavenward and earthward, the protective against superstition and folly, a defence against absurdity and sensuality. " Come now, and let us reason together,. saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (Isa. i. 18). Religion, true religion, hails true reason, and rejoices in it; but absurdity and superstition dread it. The keen powers of the intellect discover the discrepancies in fallacious views, and the vain dreams of narrow bigots flinch from its investigations. Piercing as arrows are the glances of minds sharpened by investigation and reflection, and humdrum dogmas of a traditional belief cannot bear their searching inquiries.
The relations of the intellect to religion;-to false religion and to true religion-are what are described in the Divine volume by the relations of Assyria to Israel and Jerusalem. The intellect may become lawless, and inflated with self-sufficiency, and then it is like Assyria, boasting and arrogant, sneering, contemptuous, and sarcastic, insolently defying God.
Such a state is represented by Assyria in our text, under Sennacherib. The ground of the correspondence of Assyria was the intellectual character of the people. As we look upon their noble countenances, the full eye seems charged with intellectual power. They were veritable lords of men.
The name Ashur signified arrow. They worshipped God, as the infinite in understanding, and represented Him by the symbol of an eagle, which the word Nisr means in their language. Sennacherib was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, when his sons smote him with the sword. The Assyrians often represented men with eagles heads, and frequently portrayed an eagle-headed figure overcoming a lion, or bull, which, as Mr. Layard suggests, "may denote the
superiority of intellect over the lower faculties." In one of their wise sayings preserved by Eusebius, we read, "God is he that has the head of a hawk (or an eagle). He is the first, indestructible, eternal, unbegotten, indivisible; dissimilar; the dispenser of all good; incorruptible; the Best of the good; the Wisest of the wise; the father of equity and justice; self-taught, perfect and wise, and the only inventor of the sacred philosophy. They pictured almost everything with wings; their men, their lions, their bulls, were all used symbolically with wings, because they contemplated everything in its relation to the intellect. Thus in all things they soared from earth to heaven.
Their victories and wide-spread dominion were the result of their culture and intelligence. Knowledge is power; and intellect must triumph over sense, mind over matter. This was true in their days, and will be true for ever. There is a prediction of wonderful majesty and beauty in the prophecy of Isaiah, in which the orderly connection of science and intelligence, and the subordination of both to pure religion, is described under the form of the union of the three countries, Egypt, Assyria, and Israel :-" In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance" (xix. 24, 25).
Egypt has but little now to do with the true worship of God; Assyria has long disappeared altogether as a nation; and Israel will never more, as a people,. inhabit the hills and vales of Palestine. The hour-hand of Divine Providence never goes backward; progress for the human race is the order of heaven. Nevertheless the prophecy will be fulfilled. Science, the possession of Egypt, and rationality, the possession of Assyria, will be united and subordinated to holiness, the true "Israel of God," and the Divine blessing will be upon them all.
It is a very curious circumstance, and a peculiar feature in our mental history, that while as to every other faculty it is admitted to be its office to perceive as much as it can, and enjoy as much as it can of the objects "which it is fitted to embrace,-the rational faculty, with one class of minds, rejoices only in resisting; it closes its eyes, and defies you to make it see; it doubts, doubts, doubts, and keeps trying to say, No; it is ingeniously negative; it will not have a Divine Friend.
This state is represented by Assyria, the rational faculty, warring against Jerusalern. Sennacherib and his army represent negative reasoning, and all its supporting ideas, resolved to crush the Church.
The three personages, Tartan, Rabsaris, and Rabshakeh, who so insultingly addressed the Jews, as recorded in the previous chapter, are now known to have borne these names as official ones. The Tartan means the commander-in-chief; the Rabsaris is chief of the eunuchs; and the Rabshakeh chief of the butlers. They were the ministers of state of the king of Assyria. The perverse spirit of infidel doubt has such ministers of state, who deny and defy, and think they can conquer religion. The vindictive feeling of bitter opposition to the Lord's kingdom is the Tartan. The ever-ready doubt is Rabsaris, the chief of the eunuchs; it is barren, and incapable of producing any soul-ennobling project of good. The chief of the butlers is Rabshakeh, who represents the plausible spirit of delusive reasoning, which presents its flatteries and persuasions as draughts of seductive wine, to make victims intoxicated with folly and inflamed with a spirit of delusion.
What is religion, say these, but the dream of dotards, the scheme of priests? Away with the vain fancies of the life of angels, and be content with being a finely organised specimen of dust a bubble of froth tossed up on the billows of time's tremendous sea and soon to sink into its native nothingness. " Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." This boastful derisive rationalism, which is as far from true reason as darkness is from light, is Assyria beleaguering Jerusalem.
The true Christian knows in whom he has trusted: he knows what heaven is, for the kingdom of God is within him. If he can really reason well, he can soon scatter the legions of false argument which are based only on the fallacies of the senses. If he cannot reason much, he will still be safe, for he has a faculty above reasoning, the perception which shines from goodness. He dwells in love, and therefore he dwells in God and knows God, for "God is love" (I John iv.) Such a man will remain firm, and pray. This was what Hezekiah did, and the Divine promise of our text came. It amounts to this: Mere reasoners will fall of themselves don't trouble yourselves about them. Give blasphemous reasoning a little time; and it will refute itself "In quietness and confidence shall be your strength." -
This angel of the Lord ~s generally and properly considered to have been that terrible blast of Eastern deserts, the simoom. In the previous chapter we read, "Behold, I will send a blast upon him" (v. 7). It is called an angel or messenger of the Lord, as all things are under the control of Divine Providence-the evil and the good-and, by permission, as well as by ordination, they work out His Divine purpose, which is the greatest good possible for the human race, and the least evil for anyone. Like the "evil angels" mentioned in Psalm lxxviii., as being sent among the rebellious Egyptians(v. 49), the angel of the Lord here was a power acting by permission for wise ends and for the universal good. The Lord is Mercy itself and only for purposes of mercy does He act. "He slew farnous kings, for His mercy endureth for ever" (Ps. cxxxvi, 18). "Evil shall slay the wicked, and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate" (Ps. xxxiv. 20).
There is always a pressure from the dark world seeking to destroy men; but the Divine Sphere of the Lord arrests it, and every moment preserves the human race. When, however, the preservation of the good, as in the case before us, can only be accomplished by the overthrow of the wicked. Divine Providence can no longer avert it, and then, either by war, pestilence, earthquake, storm, or simoom, the wicked are overthrown.
We are not told the entire numbber of the Assyrian host. Their armies in those days were very large; but probably the greater part of the immense mass lay suffocated by the awful minister o death. When the rest awoke in the morning, there was a plain covered with corpses. The horrid blast of the desert, stimulated by the inner blast of an opened hell had done its fearful work.
"Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green
That host with their banners at sunset were seen;
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown
That host on the morrow lay scattered and strawn."
The scene must have been surpassingly dreadful; and it is the symbol of what happens always, sooner or later to the boastful scorner of religion. From the terrible hot-bed of his lusts there comes an influx which breaks him down. To assail the Church, there must be an appearance of morality; but the evil one is really burning within, as the prophet says, "as an oven heated by the baker" (Hos. vii. 4); and the day comes at last when the impure blast breaks forth and destroys all spiritual life. They become all dead men, Like the volcano which has long been sleeping, but bursts out, scattering dismay and death, so is it with inward passion and sin. Its scathing power rushes forth irresistibly at last, and the soul becomes only a living death.
Let this terrible Assyrian example teach us never to oppose the Church of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem; but come up there to worship the King, who liveth for ever and ever.
There is a beautiful prophecy in Isaiah, the converse of our text, to which the mind can turn with delight, for it opens up a fountain of hope to those who have strayed from the truth:-- “And it shall come to pass in that day that the great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come who were ready to perish in Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount at Jerusalem.”
Author: Jonathan Bayley--- The Divine Wisdom of the Word of God (1892)