Isaiah 36-39

Good morning! Today we move into prose again from the poetry that is the style of most of the prophets. These chapters (Isaiah 36-39) describe episodes in the reign of King Hezekiah that involve Isaiah the prophet. Today’s stories are familiar, for we read about them in the Kings and Chronicles accounts about King Hezekiah’s reign. The question this passage raises for me is one of divine agency: does God truly control the public and private events in a person’s life, as is described in these chapters?

The story of Isaiah 36-37 recounts how Assyria’s representative publicly challenges Israel’s people to submit to Assyrian rule. Sennacherib’s envoy contends that Egypt will fail to be dependable, and that the God of Israel actually supports Assyria instead. The Rabshakeh’s challenge is an exercise of power and intimidation, making sure the people overhear this conversation. Sennacherib believes that God is on the side of power, and the powerful. This has been a frequent claim by foreign and Jewish rulers alike, but as we will be reminded when we read of God born into baby form, it flies in the face of the biblical God.

Hezekiah sends representatives to Isaiah the palace prophet, fearful and complaining about God’s absence. Isaiah responds with foreknowledge of what is to befall the king of Assyria. Hezekiah’s prayer then calls on God to come to the vindication of Israel, proving that this nation and no other has a living, powerful God as its defender. God’s reply comes through Isaiah: Everything that’s happening is by my intention, my plan from long ago. Isaiah doesn’t deny that Sennacherib’s success is of God, but also declares that such success ends now. God will turn away from Assyria to preserve Israel instead, and we read that so it happened.

In chapters 38 and 39, we have further fodder for reflection on God’s role in human action. Isaiah delivers what amounts to a death sentence to Hezekiah, but it doesn’t happen. Following a pleading prayer from the king, Isaiah receives a divine follow-up message that though Hezekiah is extremely ill, he will live 15 years longer instead. Then, Hezekiah’s pride leads him to trust the Babylonian delegation enough to see everything he has. This will lead, the prophet says, to the downfall of Judah and the line of Hezekiah.

I have to admit that though these chapters describe God as having a plan which world events follow from, I’m more inclined to think that the storyteller knew what had already happened to Assyria and chose to write it as though it were foreknowledge. Otherwise, real problems start to build up when the earnest prayers of others do not result in a saved nation or restored health. I prefer to believe instead that prayers turn our attention to what needs help in the world, and the changes in our actions might be the answers to prayer for someone else or ourselves. This doesn’t match how God acts according to Isaiah’s narrative here, but it makes more sense of the world I know. What do you think? Happy reading!

Read Isaiah 36-39.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Isaiah 40-42. Thanks for reading!

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