Isaiah 36

The Boast of the Rabshakeh

We now enter into the seventh book of Isaiah, the "Book of Hezekiah." This book will go from chapter 36 and end at 39.

Isaiah shifts genre to narrative and the telling of stories revolving around the life of the King of Jerusalem, Hezekiah, during the fourteenth year of his kingly reign.

As you read 2 Kings 18:14-16, it is discovered that Hezekiah had met the tribute demands of King Sennacherib which should have secured immunity from invasion. Sennacherib did not keep his word, however, and decided to press for total surrender of Jerusalem. In response, King Hezekiah put his trust in Yahweh, responding affirmatively to Isaiah's prophecies found in chapter 7 through 35.

The Rabshakeh Confronts (1-3)

Sennacherib and his army have been extremely victorious in their military campaigns and had seized the fortified cities of Judah (forty-six such cities to be exact), yet he has not taken Jerusalem. Therefore, Sennacherib decides to send one of the highest-ranking military leaders (the Rabshakeh) and a large army to go speak with Hezekiah. Hezekiah then sends out three of his men to rendezvous and receive the message from the military officer. Interestingly, Isaiah records that the meeting took place at the exact same place where Isaiah had some thirty years earlier confronted King Ahaz (1-3).

Challenge to Hezekiah (4-10)

The message delivered from the military officer sought to unnerve the people of Jerusalem and tempt them into making a bargain with Assyria for the sake of their safety. His disrespect for Hezekiah was palpable as Hezekiah was not addressed by title (4).

The Rabshakeh attacked the absurd strategy of seeking help from Egypt—one of the few issues on which Yahweh and the Rabshakeh would agree. He called Egypt a broken reed who would only pierce with betrayal any who would seek alliance with them (6).

It’s important to make note that Hezekiah was a good king who leaned into trusting Yahweh and sought many reforms to national faith in Judah (2 Kings 16-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32). He was zealous about destroying the altars of false gods and pointing the people back to the worship of Yahweh.

The Rabshakeh mocked Hezekiah for attempting a strategy of resistance, calling it a propaganda scam (5).

With all of this as a background, the Rabshakeh then rips King Hezekiah for seeking to restore trust in Yahweh who was obviously weaker than the gods strengthening Assyria. Who was Yahweh when compared with the many polytheistic gods of the Assyrian kingdom? Weak and even unable to help the northern tribe Israel against His invasion.

There is no doubt that many within the nation of Judah would have agreed with the Rabshakeh (7).

The Rabshakeh then mocks Judah's cavalry, smart-mouthing them by boasting that if he were to give them 2,000 horses to try to even the fight, Judah would not be able to put riders on those horses (8).

Even the weakest division of the Rabshakeh's army would easily mow Judah over, even if Egypt's master warriors and charioteers were to give aid (9).

Then the Rabshakeh brashly declares Yahweh Himself had spoken to the nation of Assyria and had called them to invade. Maybe he and Sennacherib had heard Isaiah's prophecies (10).

The Plea of Hezekiah's Key Leaders (11-13)

Essentially, the leader class of Jerusalem wanted to speak in Aramaic with the Rabshakeh—the tongue unknown to most of Judah's troops but well-known to the diplomatic core. They wanted the Rabshakeh and his crew to cease speaking in Hebrew (11). The Rabshakeh disrespectfully refused, announcing his goal. The Rabshakeh was wanting to clearly define what was awaiting the city: a siege, hunger, dung-eating, and urine-drinking. The Rabshakeh pressed on in Hebrew, seeking to strike deep fear in Hezekiah's troops (12-13).

The Speech of the Rabshakeh (14-22)

The rest of the chapter is mostly the speech from the Rabshakeh. The Rabshakeh's goal was to instill fear and mistrust in the rule of Hezekiah.

The Rabshakeh refers to Hezekiah as:

a) deceiver, accusing Hezekiah of knowing full well that he was taking Judah into complete defeat.
b) powerless to insert a rescue from Yahweh, his words being meaningless. Of course, during this whole time, Hezekiah is not at the meeting (14-15).

Then the Rabshakeh defined his terms of peace, calling for the gates of the city to open and the military to come out in full and complete surrender to a sudden and full peace. He then guaranteed they would be temporarily allowed to return to their farms (16). Finally, in time, they would be taken to another land which would be surprisingly prosperous (17).

The Rabshakeh repeated his boast—Hezekiah was misleading Judah and no other god had delivered any other nation from Assyria. All other gods, even Yahweh of the northern kingdom of Israel, had failed them. No god had been able to resist Assyria so why would such a weakened city imagine they would enjoy a victorious outcome relying only on their weakened, lonely God of Yahweh? (18-20)

Hezekiah's troops on the wall, for whatever reason, remained silent at the direction of Hezekiah and answered the Rabshakeh with not a word (21).

In our final verse, Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, the palace administrator, Shebna, court secretary, and Joah, royal historian, returned to the king with the report, we are told, with their clothes torn. The reason for the torn clothes is that this was the correct response to blasphemy. The men recognized that the Rabshakeh’s speech against Yahweh was blasphemy, and they responded rightly to the speech and did not buy into it (22).