The Assyrian Empire in the 8th century B.C. was a major world superpower. Sennacherib succeeded his father, Sargon II, and reigned from 701-681 B.C (Lockyer, 1986, p.963). His reign was punctuated by devastating military conquests of westward expansion (p.963). This is the man whose exploits are recorded in the 36th chapter of the historical account of the prophet Isaiah beginning with the first verse, “Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them” (Is 36:1 NKJV).
Sennacherib’s name is mentioned a total of 13 times in the Bible all of which occur in the Old Testament (Strong, p.901). These references are found in the account of his encounter before Jerusalem in II Kings 18:13-19:37; II Chronicles 32:1-23; and Isaiah 36:1-37:38. The Hebrew word “Cancheriyb” is marked by Strong’s number 5576 and refers every time to the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.
Archaeological research has uncovered a stone monument from the ancient Assyrian kingdom which recounts details of Sennacherib’s siege again the royal city of David (Lockyer, p.963). It boasts of shutting up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage” but makes no reference to the outcome of the campaign. This latter point is perhaps because of its humiliating failure at the powerful hand of the Holy One of Israel who decisively secured victory for the people of God. “Then the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses-all dead” (Is 37:36 NKJV cf. II Kings 19:35; II Chr 32:21).
The military campaigns of the Assyrian Empire were marked by utter destruction and merciless devastation of their enemies. There was nothing that could withstand the mighty onslaught of their armies as the wake of their pathway was full of dominant victories over the lesser kingdoms that dared to resist their might. Knowing this history gives much light and understanding into the Biblical context of Isaiah chapter 36. Sennacherib dispatched the Rabshakeh, most likely his Chief of Staff or Governor, to lay out the king of Assyria’s terms of military engagement. His report was full of arrogant taunts, humiliating rhetoric, and blasphemous threats. A poignant example is Isaiah 36:18, “Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, ‘The LORD will deliver us.’ Has any one of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria?”
It has been said that the furnace of affliction is the crucible of greatness. Throughout history, the likes of William Wallace, Thomas J. Jackson, and Winston Churchill have stood in the spirit of Hezekiah, king of Judah. In the face of such formidable opposition, this man possessed the spiritual moxy to defy the notorious Sennacherib with words that ring down through the corridor of time even to us today. “Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid nor dismayed before the king of Assyria, nor before all the multitude that is with him; for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles” (II Chr 32:7-8). Unbeknownst to Sennacherib, the Holy One of Israel is Yahweh Armies, the LORD of hosts whose mighty hand and outstretched arm is not shortened even before the king of Assyria. Israel’s God was a force to be reckoned with unlike Sennacherib had ever seen. Unlike the false gods of the pagan kingdoms which he had already sacked, Yahweh was the one true and living God and eternal Creator of heaven and earth who reigns in sovereign and supreme majesty over all the kingdoms of the earth. Upon receiving Sennacherib’s letter, Hezekiah went to the temple and appealed to the LORD on the basis of the greatness of who He is and the dire need of the entire world knowing the glory of the Holy One of Israel. “Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the LORD, You alone” (Is 37:20). The Lord delights in showing Himself mighty on behalf of those whose hearts are loyal to Him (II Chr 16:9).
Strong, J Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers
Lockyer, Sr., H (1986) Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers
The ESV Study Bible. (2008) Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles
*Written 1/16/17 for BIB 540 in Grace Bible College’s Online Graduate Studies Program