Chapter 36 is the first of four chapters that give an account of certain events that occurred during the lifetime of Isaiah. Accordingly, Chapters 36 through 39 are called the “historical chapters.”
Although events in these chapters occurred during the lifetime of Isaiah, they are important to us in the latter days because they serve as prophetic types for events that will occur in our time. When the foretold events begin to unfold, this account will provide us with comfort and assurance that the Lord’s protection will be with His modern followers, just as it was with ancient Jerusalem and her righteous king, Hezekiah. When these events begin to unfold, may we remember the words of the prophet Zephaniah:
In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack.
The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.1
Clearly, Isaiah’s purpose in writing these chapters was not to produce a historical record or even to summarize important historical events. The most important political event of Isaiah’s lifetime, the carrying away of the ten tribes into captivity, is not even mentioned here.2 Isaiah’s purpose is two-fold: First, to remind future readers that the Lord has acted miraculously in the past in defense of His righteous people; and second, to give readers in the latter days a type, or pattern, for events in their own lifetime that would otherwise cause great fear or despair.
Earlier, in Chapter 10, Isaiah prophesied concerning these events that came to pass during his lifetime which would serve as types for latter-day events: “Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD of hosts, O my people that dwellest in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod, and shall lift up his staff against thee, after the manner of Egypt” (emphasis added).3 “Zion” means ancient Jerusalem as well as the latter-day Zion in America, and “the Assyrian” means simultaneously the ancient superpower and a modern equivalent.
The events of these chapters are also recorded by the scribes of Hezekiah, king of Judah.4 A careful comparison reveals that differences in wording between the two accounts occur in nearly every verse. For example, verse 1 of Isaiah Chapter 36 reads: “Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them.” Verse 13 of 2 Kings Chapter 18 reads: “Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them” (emphasis added). Note that the subtle differences in wording do not significantly alter the meaning.
Major events of Isaiah Chapter 36 are as follows: Sennacherib, king of Assyria, wages war against Judah, taking all the defenced cities except for Jerusalem. The Assyrian army assembles at Jerusalem and the Assyrian king’s emissaries confer with representatives of Hezekiah, king of Judah. The Assyrians insult the Jews and blaspheme the Lord, proclaiming that the Lord had no power to protect Jerusalem. Hezekiah’s representatives rend their clothes and report these developments to Hezekiah.
Verse 1 states: “Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them.” Judah, we are told in this verse, came under attack by the Assyrians who conquered all the walled cities of Judah except for Jerusalem itself. This development followed the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel and the carrying away of the ten tribes into captivity.5 The remainder of Chapter 36 and all of Chapter 37 describe events that took place when the Assyrian army subsequently encircled Jerusalem.
An account not included in Isaiah’s narrative occurs at this point in 2 Kings 18:14-16. The fact that Isaiah does not present this portion suggests that it is not part of the prophetic type and that Hezekiah’s actions as reported in these three verses do not serve as guidance for the Lord’s latter-day followers.
2 Kings 18:14 begins: “And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, I have offended; return from me: that which thou puttest on me will I bear. And the king of Assyria appointed unto Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.” Here Hezekiah attempts to appease the invaders, stating that he will do for them whatever they request if they withdraw. Obligingly, the King of Assyria demands an enormous ransom: Three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. The value by today’s standards of these weights of silver and gold is not known precisely, but it was clearly in the millions of dollars.
2 Kings 18:15 states: “And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasures of the king’s house.” Not only did Hezekiah give the Assyrians the wealth that he owned personally; he also gave them the wealth that resided in the temple.
2 Kings 18:16 declares: “At that time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the pillars which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.” Here, the removal of gold from doors and pillars of the temple is described. Despite the ransom paid by Hezekiah, the Assyrians do not withdraw, thus not fulfilling their side of the agreement. Isaiah’s implication is that appeasement or payment of a ransom should not be part of the model for latter-day events.
Verse 2—returning to Isaiah’s account—states: “And the king of Assyria sent Rab-shakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.” “Conduit of the upper pool” is chiastically equivalent to “highway of the fuller’s field.” These two linear geographic features serve as coordinates to precisely describe the meeting place. “Rab-shakeh,” rather than being a name, is a title meaning “chief of the officers” in Hebrew. 6
Verse 3 continues: “Then came forth unto him Eliakim, Hilkiah’s son, which was over the house, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah Asaph’s son, the recorder.” Three representatives of the household of Hezekiah came forth to meet Rab-Shakeh and the others. These three were the manager of the king’s palace, a scribe, and a recorder. The law required two or three witnesses to document important events,7 fulfilled by Hezekiah in sending these three representatives.
In verse 4, the Assyrian emissaries state their cause: “And Rab-shakeh said unto them, Say ye now to Hezekiah, Thus saith the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this wherein thou trustest?”8 Hezekiah had refused to pay additional ransom; the Assyrians surmise that he has made an alliance with another power to protect against the invaders, giving him confidence that he can withstand the Assyrians.
In verse 5, the Assyrian emissary repeats his question for emphasis: “I say, sayest thou, (but they are but vain words) I have counsel and strength for war: now on whom dost thou trust, that thou rebellest against me?” The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) clarifies: “I say, thy words are but vain when thou sayest, I have counsel and strength for war. Now, on whom dost thou trust that thou rebellest against me?”9 Again, the emissary of the king of Assyria surmises that Hezekiah has made an alliance with another political power for protection against the invaders.
Verses 4 and 5 contain a chiasm:
(4) And Rab-shakeh said unto them, Say ye now to Hezekiah,
A: Thus saith the great king, the king of Assyria,
B: What confidence is this wherein thou trustest?
C: (5) I say, thy words are but vain
C: when thou sayest, I have counsel and strength for war:
B: now on whom dost thou trust,
A: that thou rebellest against me?
“The great king, king of Assyria” compares with “that thou rebellest against me?” Isaiah designates who spoke these words—the king of Assyria, through his representatives. Omission by the scribes in their account of “I say” at the beginning of verse 5 interferes with symmetry of the chiasm.10 This suggests that Isaiah likely wrote the original account; his narrative was then altered and expanded as the official record by the scribes, who apparently did not recognize the subtleties of Isaiah’s writing.
In verse 6, the spokesman for the king of the Assyrians answers his own question: “Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him.” The humanistic Assyrians reason incorrectly that Hezekiah had appealed for protection unto Egypt, an ancient but fading superpower which did not have the capability of protecting Jerusalem. The metaphor used by the Assyrians—a broken reed that would penetrate the hand of him who would lean upon it—illustrates perceived Egyptian weakness, her inability to provide the needed protection and disastrous consequences for him who would place such trust. The kingdom of Israel, consisting of the ten tribes, had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians despite Hoshea’s appeal to Egypt for help.11
Verses 5 and 6 contain a chiasm:
(5) I say, thy words are but vain when thou sayest, I have counsel and strength for war: now
A: on whom
B: dost thou trust,
C: that thou rebellest against me?
B: (6) Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed,
A: on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him.
“On whom” matches “on Egypt,” providing a response to the question. Verse 6 contains a chiasm that overlaps that of verses 5 and 6:
A: (6) Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed,
B: on Egypt; whereon if a man lean,
C: it will go into his hand,
C: and pierce it:
B: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt
A: to all that trust in him.
Overlapping elements shared by this and the chiasm of verses 5 and 6 emphasize that the Assyrians thought Hezekiah had established an alliance with Egypt. “Egypt,” the second element on the ascending side of the chiasm of verse 6, is the same as the final element on the descending side of the chiasm of verses 5 and 6. Thus “on whom dost thou trust” is equated with “Egypt” in both chiasms.
In verse 7, Rab-shakeh continues his speech: “But if thou say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar?” The Assyrians knew of Hezekiah’s destruction of idolatrous altars and high places throughout the land of Judah.12 Rab-shakeh incorrectly assumes that they were altars unto the Lord Jehovah, thus requiring all to worship exclusively at the temple in Jerusalem. This, the Assyrians reason, could be perceived by the Jews as an affront to the Lord and that they could easily be convinced that the Lord would refuse to protect Judah and Jerusalem.
In verse 8, the Assyrian spokesman demands: “Now therefore, give pledges, I pray thee, to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give thee two thousand horses, if thou be able on thy part to set riders upon them.” By “give pledges,” Rab-shakeh means “join the Assyrian army.” He also offers to provide up to two thousand horses to the consignees, an added incentive. This, he implies, would be a far better outcome than the ensuing slaughter and captivity if they declined such an offer.
In verse 9, Rab-shakeh continues with a question: “How then wilt thou turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master’s servants, and put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?” This means “how could you turn down such an offer from me, and put your trust in Egypt?” Rab-shakeh’s self-diminutive “one captain of the least of my master’s servants” is at once an attempt at modesty and an added threat: If the Jews were not intimidated by Rab-shakeh and his hosts, other units of the Assyrian army were greater and more formidable than his.
Verses 7 through 9 contain a chiasm:
A: (7) But if thou say to me, We trust in the LORD our God:
B: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar?
C: (8) Now therefore give pledges,
D: I pray thee, to my master
D: the king of Assyria,
C: and I will give thee two thousand horses, if thou be able on thy part to set riders upon them.
B: (9) How then wilt thou turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master’s servants,
A: and put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
“We trust in the LORD our God” contrasts with “put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen.” To the Assyrian captain, however, both options were equally rash. “Now therefore give pledges” compares with “I will give thee two thousand horses;” the second phrase stating what the Assyrian spokesman would do in response to the pledges.
In verse 10, the Assyrian spokesman claims that the Lord [Jehovah] sent him to destroy this land: “And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.”13
In verse 11, the Jewish representatives respond: “Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah unto Rab-shakeh, Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews’ language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.” Eliakim and his companions request that the Assyrian spokesman speak in the official language of the Persian Empire, Aramaic,14 rather than in Hebrew which the citizens of Jerusalem who were within hearing could understand. Eliakim’s use of “thy servants” was an expression of courtesy to a visiting dignitary.
In verse 12, the Assyrian captain angrily denies the request and delivers a crude insult: “But Rab-shakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” Rab-shakeh emphasizes that the Assyrian king sent him to speak to the entire citizenry of Jerusalem, not just Hezekiah and his representatives. Rab-shakeh here predicts that the people would be forced to eat and drink their own waste by the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, which would deprive them of food and water.15
In verse 13, the Assyrian captain addresses the entire populace within his hearing: “Then Rab-shakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews’ language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria.”
In verses 14 and 15, Rab-shakeh delivers the Assyrian king’s message. Verse 14 commences: “Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you.” The Great Isaiah Scroll renders: “Thus saith the king of Assyria….”16
Verse 15 continues: “Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.”17 According to this boastful challenge, neither Hezekiah nor the Lord Jehovah are strong enough to stop the Assyrians.
Verses 16 and 17 set forth the Assyrian plan of dispersing the population of their conquered lands:
Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern;
Until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.
The account of the king’s scribes adds: “a land of oil olive and of honey, that ye may live, and not die.”18
In verse 18, the Assyrian captain reiterates his boastful challenge: “Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, The LORD will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?”19
Verses 19 and 20 deliver the blasphemous challenge of the Assyrians, comparing the Lord Jehovah to vain idols in conquered lands. Verse 19 commences: “Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?”20 The account of the scribes includes the gods of three other conquered kingdoms, “the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah.”21
Verse 20 continues: “Who are they among all the gods of these lands, that have delivered their land out of my hand, that the LORD [Jehovah] should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” The Assyrians blaspheme the Lord by denying that He has power to deliver Jerusalem from their hands.
Verses 19 and 20 contain a chiasm:
A: (19) Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?
B: (20) Who are they among all the gods
C: of these lands,
C: that have delivered their land out of my hand,
B: that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem
A: out of my hand?
In this chiasm “gods” is equated by the Assyrian captain with “the LORD,” illustrating his blasphemous contention that the Lord Jehovah was equivalent to gods of the lands already defeated by Assyria and could not defend Jerusalem.
Verse 21 describes the Jewish response: “But they held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king’s commandment was, saying, Answer him not.”
In verse 22 the Jewish emissaries report to Hezekiah: “Then came Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, that was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder, to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of Rab-shakeh.” Tearing of clothing was a sign of deep distress.
1. Zephaniah 3:16-17.
2. 2 Kings 17:6; see also Bible Dictionary—Chronology.
3. Isaiah 10:24; see verses 24-34 and pertinent commentary.
4. 2 Kings 18:13-37; 19; and 20:1-19.
5. See 2 Kings 18:9-12.
6. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 7262, p. 913.
7. See Deuteronomy 17:6.
8. Verses 2 through 4 contain a chiasm: Rab-shakeh/king Hezekiah/conduit of the upper pool/highway of the fuller’s field/Eliakim…Shebna…Joah/Rab-shakeh.
9. Joseph Smith’s “New Translation” of the Bible: Herald Publishing House, Independence, Missouri, 1970, p. 206.
10. See 2 Kings 18:19-20.
11. See 2 Kings 17:4.
12. See 2 Kings 18:3-4.
13. Verse 10 contains a chiasm: Come up/the LORD/against this land/to destroy it/the LORD/go up.
14. Isaiah 36:11, footnote 11a.
15. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 321.
16. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 148.
17. Verses 13 through 15 contain a chiasm: King of Assyria/let not Hezekiah/deceive you/deliver you/let Hezekiah/ king of Assyria.
18. 2 Kings 18:32.
19. Verses 15 through 18 contain a chiasm: The LORD will surely deliver us/hearken not/Hezekiah/vine…fig tree… waters…cistern/ corn…wine…bread…vineyards/ Hezekiah/persuade you/the LORD will deliver us.
20. Verses 18 and 19 contain a chiasm: Delivered his land…hand of the king of Assyria/gods of Hamath and Arphad/gods of Sepharvaim/delivered Samaria…my hand. Parry, 2001, p. 261.
21. 2 Kings 18:34.