Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 5/21/00
Some 35 years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote his excellent little book _Your God is Too Small_. Sennacharib ought to have read it before he decided to attack a king who put his trust in the God of Israel. This chapter, along with the more detailed accounts in 2 Kgs. 18-19 and Is. 36-37, present one of the most dramatic "power encounters" of Scripture, indeed of all history. In the examples set by these two kings, Sennacharib and Hezekiah, there is much for us to learn, to avoid, and to emulate.
This period of history was marked by the rise and fall of empires: Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Medeo-Persia, Greece, Rome. During the lull between the waning of Syria and the rise to full power of Assyria, a number of vassal states like Judaea saw an opportunity to assert their independence and refuse to pay their tribute. Sennacharib, with his general Rabshakeh, came to put them in their place. Rabshakeh surrounded Jerusalem and showed in 2 Kgs. 18:26-36 that the NBA did not invent trash-talking. Speaking for his master Sennacharib, he taunted the people and insulted their God. Hezekiah and Isaiah laid these insults before the Lord in 2 Kgs. 19 and called upon Him to deliver them and defend His Name. The results are portrayed by Lord Byron in his famous poem "The Destruction of Sennacharib." According to the Greek historian Herodotus, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died from bubonic plague carried by mice. Hezekiah and Isaiah recognized in this deliverance the answer to their prayer delivered by the Angel of the Lord. Sennacharib had to return to Assyria, where he was assassinated in his own temple.
What is really interesting about this story is not just the deliverance but the insights provided by the Chronicler in 2 Chron. 32. Today we will look at the negative example of Sennacharib; next week, the positive example of Hezekiah.
The lesson of Sennacharib can summed up in one sentence: "Don't underestimate Jehovah." He certainly overestimated his own importance (2 Chron. 32:13). The tendency to pride inherent in the human heart is not uncommonly stoked by a series of uninterrupted successes into flaming hubris. Medieval theologians rightly recognized pride as the root of all sin. Not only was it Satan's original sin, but every act of disobedience elevates us above God, treating our own wishes and will as more important than His. And Sennacharib certainly became an unforgettable illustration of the biblical principle that pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction.
But history and present experience are replete with such examples. What makes Sennacharib especially intriguing is the original twist he gave to the principle though his complete failure to understand the religious situation he encountered in Judaea. In 32:12, he offers as evidence of the futility of praying to Jehovah for deliverance the fact that Hezekiah had taken away the high places. These were of course pagan sites of worship that Hezekiah had abolished in the great Reformation of the 8th cent. BC, though 33:17 shows that this Reformation was never completely successful. How ironic--the very fact that was a ground of hope that Jehovah would hear seemed to Sennacharib just the opposite, evidence that the God of the Land was no longer being worshipped and would therefore not respond to a people who had forsaken Him. Besides, even gods with a motive for delivering their people rather than abandoning them had failed to stop the Assyrian juggernaut. As the narrator comments in 32:19, Sennacharib thought that Jehovah was just like the gods of the other nations.
Well, what gave him such a stupid idea? First, probably, ignorance. Why should he expect this god to be any different? But added to the natural assumption was the behavior of the Israelites, who had been pursuing pagan worship practices in the name of Jehovah, despite Hezekiah's valiant efforts at reform. In other words, Sennacharib judged God by the practice of His professed followers. This is a natural mistake. The world is prone to make it in the best of times. But it is not our place to encourage it by being no different from the pagans who surround us!
How do we do this? Do we have our own ways of treating God like the gods of the peoples? Well, if we give Him a tithe of our income and an hour or two on Sunday but then live the rest of the week in a secular manner, do we not treat Him as if He were one of those animistic tribal deities who needs to be appeased by the sacrifice of a few goats or chickens so we can get on with our lives? If we profess to be Christians but still labor under a performance-based piety that is simply works-righteousness by a less clear name, do we not treat Him as if He were Allah rather than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? If we buy into the health-and-wealth gospel ("Name it and claim it" [or, more accurately perhaps, "blab it and grab it"] ), do we not treat Him as if He were a witch doctor or shaman? If we are attracted to the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox veneration of the saints and Mary, do we not treat Him as if He were the chairman of some polytheistic pantheon, like Zeus? If we claim to be Christians but are uncomfortable with the exclusivity of the claims of Christ as the only way to the Father (after all, who are we to judge someone else's spirituality?), do we not treat Him as if He were merely the Hindu's "ishta devata," his own personal deity who is after all just one of many manifestations of the One? Down this road lies the worship of Tashlan--not to mention the loss of the Gospel. Seen in this light, the American Evangelical churches need a Hezekiah pretty desperately. May God send him before it is too late!
It is always a mistake to judge God by His worshippers. He certainly, for example, deserves a better spokesman than me. By definition, they are all sinners saved by grace, at different places on their pilgrimage, not one of whom doesn't yet have far to go. They will all eventually let you down in ways that He does not. But it is unreasonable to expect the world not to make this mistake. Therefore, the fact that it is a mistake gives us no license to be such representatives of our Lord that we actually encourage the world to think of Him as just like the other gods. While we will never do it perfectly, we must give them a reason to think differently. Otherwise, we merely tempt them, like Sennacharib, to their own destruction.
Here endeth the lesson.