Chapter 7: Hezekiah
2 Kings 19
1 When King Hezekiah heard it, he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. 2 And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. 3 They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. 4 It may be that the Lord your God heard all the words of (the) Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words which the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.” 5 When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’”
8 (The) Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah; for he heard that the king had left Lachish. 9 And when the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, “Behold, he has set out to fight against you,” he sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying, 10 “Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: ‘Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. 11 Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. And shall you be delivered? 12 Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations which my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Tel-assar? 13 Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?’
14 Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. 15 And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said: “O Lord, the God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. 16 Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear; open thy eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 17 Of a truth, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, 18 and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they were destroyed. 19 So now, O Lord our God, save us, I beseech thee, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou, O Lord, art God alone.”
20 Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Your prayer to me about Sennacherib king of Assyria I have heard. 21 This is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him: “She despises you, she scorns you— the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you— the daughter of Jerusalem. 22 “Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and haughtily lifted your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel! 23 By your messengers you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, ‘With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses; I entered its farthest retreat, its densest forest. 24 I dug wells and drank foreign waters, and I dried up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt.’ 25 “Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins, 26 while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field, and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops; blighted before it is grown? 27 “But I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. 28 Because you have raged against me and your arrogance has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, And I will turn you back on the way by which you came.
29 “And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs of the same; then in the third year sow, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. 30 And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; 31 for out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord will do this.
32 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 33 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. 34 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”
35 And that night the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home, and dwelt at Nineveh. 37 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adram-melech and Sharezer, his sons, slew him with the sword, and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.
This chapter opens with a pitiable scene. In face of the besieging Assyrian army and the extraordinary speech of Rabshakeh, the king cuts a sorry figure. He tears his clothes, a classical sign of despair. We have seen that Joram did the same in similar circumstances in Samaria. And yet, instead of making a fine rejoinder, or addressing a fiery appeal to his people, or making haste to strengthen the weak points in the defenses, or considering the possibilities of getting fresh supplies, or making a supreme military effort, or perhaps engaging in the most skillful possible negotiations, Hezekiah takes refuge in the temple and sends messengers to Isaiah. In other words, he does the very opposite of what a Jehu or an Ahaz would have done. From a realistic standpoint, we cannot fail to find this attitude very weak, cowardly, and irresponsible. For the task of a king is surely to defend his people and to use material means to do so. We seem to have here the typical retreat of the Christian from reality. It is the attitude which is so often attacked. The Christian is a coward who when confronted by difficulties takes refuge in the bosom of his God, in false hopes and an illusory protection. This is what Marxists regard as ideological opium and psychologists as infantile regression and sociologists as artificial cultural reassurance. But in face of these human judgments Scripture speaks differently, and perhaps it would be as well to listen to it.
Joram rent his garments and gave way to despair in face of the moral horror of the fact which was revealed to him and his powerlessness to make any reply. But Hezekiah performs the same act for different reasons. It is not because the siege is hard, for the situation is no worse today than yesterday. It is not because the situation is hopeless nor because he fears the effects of the propaganda. The people stands firm and obeys him; the propaganda has failed. When then? His only reason is that the king of Assyria has mocked the living God. This is the essential point. Hezekiah tears his clothes in anger and indignation and in despair that the Lord can be thus insulted by men. It is a day of anguish because man is making a direct assault on God. It is a day when babies are ready to be born and there is no strength to deliver them, for the living God, who gives force and life, has been insulted. After this, there is in fact nothing more to be done. For, political though the problem may be, it is no longer a political affair. It has a dimension which is more than political. And the king, the political head, can do no more. He may fight or negotiate, but this is no longer the problem. God has been called an idol. It has been said that he is not above the gods of other nations. It has been dubbed an illusion to believe that God is a God who saves rather than destroys. At issue now is God’s honor. This is the true problem. Hezekiah now shows himself to be an exemplary king because he is one of those very rare rulers who knows the limits of politics. Man can do many things, but there is a limit. And when this limit, which is God’s honor, is reached by man, there is a twofold temptation, either on the one side to pass the limit, to take up God’s cause, to try to avenge God’s honor oneself, to use political means in the service of the living God in order to do this, or on the other side to remain within the limit but to continue political action as though it did not exist, in other words, to separate the two kingdoms, to argue that while God’s honor is there at the limit of politics, and I can do nothing about it, nevertheless in my own sphere I can still act like a shrewd and effective man, pursuing politics to save what can be saved by human means. Now the correctness of Hezekiah’s attitude is that he understands that when God’s honor is in any way involved in the attack of the world it is not for man to make it his own cause. But he also perceives that at this point one cannot separate the two kingdoms. In other words, there is a “suspension of the political.” We have already had occasion to note a “suspension of the ethical.” We now see another aspect of the same problem. Transgression of the limit, direct provocation of God, brings about the annulment of all possible politics, positive or negative. It robs political action of all meaning. To take up a position in the sphere of human action is futile, for in the strict sense this no longer has significance or content. It might be good for us to consider this phenomenon, for possibly we are in precisely a period like this today. At this point the totality of action, including political action, can consist only in going into the house of the Lord and turning to the prophet. The king can no longer be king in these conditions. He puts everything in a prophet’s hands. He does precisely what Joram and Ahaz refused to do, and we have seen the result of this refusal.
From this moment on the story develops in two stages. The king has laid hold of the prophet, and the latter replies with a prophetic word of comfort. God has noted the outrage. He will make the king of Assyria withdraw. This takes place. Sennacherib receives news of a military threat in the south. He has to take swift action against the king of Ethiopia, to defeat him, and then to return to Jerusalem. And Sennacherib restates his will, and repeats his affirmation and insult. He writes to the king of Judah: “Do not imagine that because I have partly raised the siege you have carried the day. I will come back and this will be the end.” Nor does he content himself with this threat. One aspect of the letter is very remarkable, for it centers on the problem of God’s action: “Do not think that God will deliver you.” He repeats the arguments of Rabshakeh: All the nations have been conquered in spite of their gods. Possibly Sennacherib had heard that the people of Jerusalem saw a divine miracle in Tirhakah’s attack, or that it was following the common idea of the age, namely, that all events are due to divine intervention, this included. Why, then, should it not be from Yahweh? Either way, Sennacherib wants to dispel the illusion. He reaffirms his view that human might is superior to God. When Hezekiah receives the letter, he thus perceives that the Assyrian refuses to see God’s hand in this event. He perceives that the man who will not see in this a sign, and who says so expressly, is a man whose eyes are closed.
This man will not accept that the event is from God. God is not to be mixed up in politics. Isaiah has announced the sign, and it has come to pass, but the one most closely involved will not regard it as such. It has not led him to repent of his insult to God. On the contrary, he renews the insult. Hence Hezekiah can do nothing but turn directly to God. It is not enough even to act through the prophet as an intermediary. Hezekiah goes up to the temple, the letter of the king of Assyria in his hand, and presents the matter to God. The important thing at this point is that he does not ask for victory. He does not pray that the king of Assyria be destroyed. His prayer is in reality a confession of faith: “Thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.” This is the positive thing he opposes to the attitude of the Assyrian king. He does not compare his own fidelity to the latter’s illusion. He simply affirms his faith in the sole Lord. At this moment the difference is established even though he is at no pains to establish it himself.
Before God he opposes his faith to the derision with which God is attacked. There is no debate. No rational proof is advanced. He does not try to demonstrate in any way the distinction between God and idols. And if we recall that the speech of Rabshakeh is typical of all the addresses in which the men of our own day attack God, it is important to realize that we cannot reply by any philosophy, or experience, or science. The only answer of Hezekiah is a prayer which contains a confession of faith. Hezekiah notes that what the Assyrian says is true. He has indeed defeated all the nations and destroyed their gods. Similarly, the speeches of modern man express a reality. God is dead, Christianity is checked, Christendom is in a state of dissolution, religion is linked to a certain stage in the evolution of the human spirit. There is a measure of truth in all this. And in face of it, we can only affirm with Hezekiah that “these were no gods” and that no god is like unto Thee. Whatever men may say bears no reference to the God and Father of Jesus Christ. I cannot prove this, but I know it in the same way as I know that I myself am alive. And finally, if Hezekiah prays that Israel may be delivered, it is not in order to gain the victory, or to enjoy political success, or to take vengeance on the Assyrian, but “that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou, O Lord, art God alone.” The glory of God is the only answer to the insult paid to God’s honor. The political act which is from God alone must show in an incontestable way to what degree God is the Lord, and the limited faith of Jerusalem and the church can only be the occasion by which the sovereignty of God over all nations is recognized. This is how God’s universality can be proclaimed, and not just proclaimed but demonstrated, for God alone can demonstrate his universality. It is not to be seen in the expansion of the church, or in the diaspora, or in the triumph of Christian civilization, or in the impressing of our forces into God’s service. Nevertheless, the problem is a political one. It is no mere matter of friendly rhetoric or academic dialogue or an inner spiritual adventure. Everything is political here, the siege, the famine, the war, the carving up of the vanquished, the balance of power between Egypt and Assyria.
Everything is political, but the genius and truth of Hezekiah is to have seen behind the political problem the real question: “Who is the Lord?” To be sure, the question seems to us to be very banal. Every Christian will say easily and smoothly and almost out of habit: “The Lord Jesus Christ.” But what is needed to make this correct answer a true one is the political dimension. To say that God is the Lord when Sennacherib is about to enslave you and put out your eyes is to say something of real significance; Similarly today, we have to ask whether technics, happiness, the state, money, or communism (our modern Sennacheribs) must be called the Lord or (there can be no question of an “and”) whether Jesus Christ is Lord. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). If we constantly try to work out optimistic syntheses and happy reconciliations it is because we have not yet seen that we are besieged no less severely than Hezekiah was by our comforts and our economic systems and our political convictions. It is because we have not yet seen that every party and every nation will try to do to the church as Sennacherib did to Israel, namely, to shut it up like a bird in a cage. But at the same time we receive from these powers the same reassurances as Rabshakeh gave to Hezekiah. The only problem, however, is this: “Who is the Lord of the nations?” Now at this level it is impossible to give a political answer to the question. From the very outset a political answer is futile, inconsistent, and inadequate. For we are confronted here by two absolute claims of which the political claim is one. When politics makes an absolute claim, the reply cannot be made on the political plane. So long as the political debate is within the relative sphere, the Christian can play a part with his own proper methods and forces and his own responsibility, as we have seen already. But when one of the powers claims to be God, to embrace the totality of human life, to give total meaning to action, history and life, no relation is possible, not even that of conflict, for here one absolute claim can be met only by another absolute claim. In the presence of one who claims to be God, victory can go only to another who claims to be God. Communism alone can defeat National Socialism or vice versa, and that by the use of the same means. If in these circumstances the Christian intervenes in the political debate, his only option is to launch a crusade in the name of Christ the King, a Christ who has become an absolute political power in the hands of men.
The Christian must not enter into this debate, for in face of the absolute claim of politics the only answer is the absolute manifestation of God. This must come, but God acts only when believers act, and the act of believers at this point is the refusal to act to which we have just referred. At this point political action consists in withdrawing into the house of the Lord and crying to him. At this point serious presence in the world can only take the form of reaffirmation of the truth of God, of faith in the Lord of the nations and the Father of Jesus Christ. If we are not mistaken, this is the most difficult course.
It is difficult because this attitude seems to be one of passivity when action appears to be most necessary; in a war or a revolution it is much more difficult to pray than to fire guns. It is difficult because it will arouse universal hostility at such a time; everyone is espousing absolute options and there is general condemnation of the man who withdraws into the house of the Lord. He is cowardly, weak, fearful, and useless. It is hard to accept judgments of this kind. There is also an element of danger, for the one who adopts this attitude seems to be the enemy of every warring power, will not be protected by any group or human force, and will be executed no matter who wins. We should also bear in mind that this attitude is justifiable only when politics presses its claim to the limit. Yet this situation is much more common today than we often think. We have only to remember how similar Rabshakeh’s speech is to the innumerable speeches we are constantly hearing.
Next, God acts, and we have here a remarkable sequence. First he gives a warning, then he pronounces a judgment which is formulated by his prophet, and finally there comes the miraculous and shattering execution.
We have already mentioned the warning. The king of Ethiopia advances against Assyria. God provokes a political move and the king of Assyria is forced to meet the threat. He should have seen that this was not just the result of chance or of simple political calculation. He should have seen that he was biting off more than he could chew. But he did not see this. We need not pursue this further.
In face of the clear prayer of Hezekiah, God sends an answer through his prophet. His judgment is pronounced. It should be noted that although this is a sure and certain judgment on the Assyrian, it is revealed to God’s people, to Israel. Today when everyone seems to be talking about the high value and positive significance of the world, it is perhaps out of place to recall that there is a judgment on the power of the world and of man. Today when everyone seems to be talking about the uselessness and negative stance of the church, it is perhaps out of place to recall that revelation is given to the church alone, and that this revelation includes the judgment on the world, on Babylon and its science and its grandeur. Our text is imperative. In the revelation of this judgment which is given to Israel the dimension is not just that of hope and consolation. God simply says to Hezekiah: “Your prayer . . . I have heard.” He does not begin by telling him that things will work out, that he will be the victor, that he will be delivered. He does this the first time, in the warning, at the level of simple political events. At this first stage God says in effect: “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard . . .he shall return to his own land.” He comforts Hezekiah and tells him the siege will be raised. But now things have gone much further. The problem is no longer the siege of Jerusalem and the sorry plight of God’s people. At issue now is the pride of man, his claim to be God, his exaltation. In the prophecy, even though it is revealed to the people of Israel and pronounced within the walls of Jerusalem, the “thou” which God utters is addressed to the Assyrian. God speaks to this Assyrian even though he does so among his own people. The “thou” which is uttered, and which was never perhaps addressed directly to Sennacherib by a human voice, is said in eternity, and it is of little significance whether a messenger comes to address it to the one accused. God’s sovereignty is expressed in this act too, namely, in the fact that the accused is condemned without any chance to defend himself. But he has been warned. This Assyrian has engaged in a vast enterprise. “With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains.” He has vanquished nature, brought creation under subjection, imposed his dominion on forests, mountains, and rivers. He can check rivers in their flow and annihilate forests. He has only to pass over a place, to set the sole of his foot there, and the world belongs to him and is transformed. It is worth noting that in verses 23-24 the reference is not to wars and massacres but to man’s domination of nature, which was certainly a result of the Assyrian’s military success but which was also a greater sign of supremacy. Man, of course, is like one of the natural objects in the hands of man: “Their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field, and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops. . . .” What is forgotten is that when the power of man is unleashed it is never in the hands of all men (“man” here means some men rather than all men, and this is even more flagrantly so today). It is in the hands of a small number of men for whom other men are objects to be treated as the means of power, as natural factors. Now this greatness and power, as we are clearly shown, were resolved upon by God from ancient times. God has allowed them to arise (v. 25). Here again, then, we have two aspects. God has determined that men should have this power. He has prepared it from of old. He has ordained it long ago. In other words, the military domination of the Assyrian, like the domination of the world by technics and the like, is the result of a divine resolve. Nevertheless, we should recall what we have said previously. God’s resolve is not put into effect through man as a robot or object. Man retains his power of decision and his independence even in God’s own plan. How can man finally accomplish the plan of God? How can what God prepared long ago be put into effect in the present? The political power of Assyria was ordained, but it is now effected through hatred, butchery, and terror. This is where we see the divine permission. In order that his end may be attained God allows man to use terrible means, means which man himself freely chooses and employs. “I have let you turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins. . . .” But again we find the same lesson that this is not necessarily right in God’s eyes. Although what God ordained from of old is accomplished, the way which man chooses is not necessarily good on that account. Man was beautiful and beloved and intelligent, he set a seal on perfection, and God had prepared a great destiny for him . . . but at each period in history, in relation to Sennacherib or to the politicians and technicians of our own time, we can still say and hear again what God says through Ezekiel to the prince of Tyre (Ezekiel 28: 1ff.). Everything has been perverted by the means which this perfect one has chosen to actualize the wisdom, beauty, and greatness that God has given him.
Now the crucial point in the choice is not ultimately the selection of this or that means but simply and solely the choice between autonomy and subordination. “Against whom have you raised your voice?” (v. 22). “You have raged against me and your arrogance has come into my ears” (v. 28). Let us make haste to set aside a misunderstanding. Superficially one might take this to mean that while a permissive God is indifferent to the fact that the Assyrian has massacred men and ruled by war, he is angry the moment the Assyrian mocks and reviles him. Only when he himself is affected does this jealous and inhuman God decide on punishment. This is not at all the meaning of the text, for precisely if the conqueror were to realize that he is in the hands of God and has received his power from him, he could not use all the means which God might permit. He could not butcher men or regard them as mere things. The technician could not despoil nature as he does today. The savant could not be so bent on unraveling all the secrets of the world. The politician could not aim at creating a nationalistic or totalitarian state.
God permits Dionysiac madness and Babel enterprises 1 because he respects man’s fre~dom and these frenzied methods fall within the perspective of his own design. But he also judges them, and he smashes them suddenly at what he takes to be the right time. The problem is that if man would see God’s intention in his own action he could no longer follow the pattern of Babel, or Dionysus, or Prometheus. This is why the accusation refers to the attack on God the Lord rather than the millions of victims or the pollution of nature or intellectual madness. For this is the root of the wrong attitude of man. This is the nub or key or cause of the whole business. It is on this that God judges because the rest follows necessarily. If man does not see that the field of his action is given or opened up to him by God, what he does will be bad, exorbitant, and destructive. If he does see it, he makes his choice, which is his real responsibility, according to the insight that all that God permits is not actually possible within the sphere of the right and truth of God. And we must always bear in mind that God is not indifferent to the victims, for ultimately all the victims are the Victim, God’s own Son, and when God condemns by reason of the offense against his will and love and majesty, this is not an abstract, philosophical, or theoretical declaration. It is in relation to the wars, the social injustices, the exploitation of the poor, and the massacres, that God speaks of this attack upon what he himself is. It is also in relation to the oppression of his people Israel and the church. In other words, God poses in a political context the choice which man must make between recognizing the Lord’s sovereignty or not. In the last resort the social (political, economic, or technical) act is the most eloquent manifestation of man’s arrogant attempt to dominate God. This is his crowning audacity, far more presumptuous than the verbal audacities of the philosopher or the poet.
When, therefore, God passes his judgment, it is on the occasion of this social choice, but at the level of its deepest motive (the attitude to God) and not the more superficial and secondary ethical motive. Sennacherib is not condemned because he has massacred thousands of people; he has massacred these thousands because he has been a law to himself, regarding himself as independent of God and accountable to nobody. This is why God calls him to account. “Whom have you finally insulted?” We are now in the presence of a mystery. “Have you not perceived that I determined these things long ago?” The term used is a remarkable one. The reference is not to the kind of natural knowledge any man may have. Sennacherib could not know in his heart and conscience that Yahweh is the Lord. He could not discover this in the myths and rites of his religion, nor in the spontaneous respect of religious feeling. On the contrary, the only possible attitude at the natural religious level is that of Rabshakeh, who identifies the Lord with the gods of the defeated nations. What we read is: “Have you not heard?” Have you not found out something you did not know of yourself, something different from what you knew previously, just as one learns a lesson by first of all hearing? This lesson might have been the direct preaching of Jonah to Nineveh if one accepts the historicity of the story, or the older preaching of Amos and Hosea as they proclaimed to the people of God that it would be punished by this savage nation from the north, or the contemporary preaching of Micah and Isaiah, or the most recent warning that the king ought to have understood. These are questions which the historian might ask. How could the conqueror have heard? But God himself knows that the Assyrian has been duly and properly warned. He has made his choice and now God judges this choice. Face to face with God’s Word Sennacherib has decided and he has rejected the Word. But man’s decision does not affect the situation in the very least. Sennacherib can say that the Lord is an ordinary and mediocre God like all the gods, but this does not mean that he escapes from God’s hand. Modern man can say that God is dead, but this does not affect either God or his purpose nor does it allow modern man any effective autonomy. The Assyrian is in God’s hand. “I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me” (v. 27). No matter what may be the Assyrian’s power, there is one who encloses him unceasingly, who knows him unceasingly, who both chooses and rejects him, who is both much more profound than he and also radically different. “I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came” (v. 28). God will treat the conqueror like a wild beast that is subdued, just as Sennacherib treated those defeated by him. All the power that modern man has gained can manifest itself in the long run only in the fact that God will use this very power against the man who hopes to dethrone God. God will use the very means of which man is so proud to subdue this man and reduce him to final destitution.
The judgment is followed by a consolation addressed to Israel in another tone and a different form. The prophet gives a sign. The sign, though remarkable, is not miraculous. Isaiah does not announce the miracle which is to follow. The sign is a set of circumstances by which the king may come to see that the word of Isaiah is true. Like bread and water, this sign is an ordinary one which simply bears witness to the truth of the word which has been spoken to the Assyrian and which is God’s Word. This very simple sign is that life will be back to normal in two years. Twice the Assyrian invasion will prevent the farmers from sowing (v. 29), but the third year they will sow afresh and will gather in the harvest. This sign is a guarantee that there is a limit to the power of man and to the exploitation of man, as there is a limit to the chastisement of God.
How simple and vital is this sign! The first year the war comes, harvest is in train, it is halted, and all that can be done is to gather what falls when it is ripe. The second year there is neither sowing nor harvest; only what grows of itself is available. But the third year there will be both sowing and harvest. “You will sow and you will eat the fruit of your labors.”
This is in fact a prophecy which often occurs in the prophets. Here again it is given as a sign to Israel, the sign that God is always its God, the Liberator. What? So simple a thing as sowing and reaping? There is nothing miraculous about this. How then can it be a sign? In our eyes it is simply a return to normalcy. For to us things are normal when they are going well. Health, affluence, peace—these are normal, so convinced are we of our own righteousness, of what is our due. But Scripture teaches the very opposite. Unfortunately what is normal now that man is separated from God is war and murder, famine and pollution, accident and disruption. When there is a momentary break in the course of these disasters, when abundance is known, when peace timidly establishes itself, when justice reigns for a span, then it is fitting, unless we are men of too little faith, that we should marvel and give thanks for so great a miracle, realizing that no less than the love and faithfulness of the Lord has been needed in order that there might be this privileged instant. We should tremble for joy as before the new and fragile life of a little child. We should press on with all our force along the way that God has opened up for us. We should see in this “normal” state of life the same thing as the declaration of Jesus Christ, the blind seeing again, the deaf hearing, lepers cleansed. A return to what we regard as normal! But we have no understanding of anything if we think that this is normal, that we have achieved it ourselves, that we deserve it. From this very moment we are engaged in destroying this peace and justice and affluence. From this very moment everything is compromised, and our only option, when things go well, is to see therein the loving grace of the Lord, the sign which is given to us and which also claims us, the sign of the grace shown to us.
The consolation addressed to Hezekiah certainly relates to the end of the siege but only as a kind of accessory conclusion, the real point being the renewing of the covenant between the Lord and his people under the rubric of “the remnant.” “And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and shall bear fruit upward; for out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant. . . ” (vv. 30-3 1). No matter how great may be God’s anger with his people, he will never abandon the people he has chosen; a remnant is promised. There are still members of the covenant people in Judah and the remnant cannot be destroyed, no matter how mighty the powers of the world may be. It is perhaps important to recall this at a time when the church is declining and afraid. For the church has the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Irrespective of its defeats, its dechristianization, its infidelity, its inner injustice and outer weakness, the church is still the body of Christ in an ultimate and inalterable way, and there will be a remnant which pushes down roots and produces fruit, even though it consist only of two or three meeting in secret.
But Israel should know, and so too should the church, that this is not in virtue of any righteousness of its own. “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (v. 34). Not even for the sake of the love of Hezekiah, although he was a righteous and pious king, a reformer, loyal, obedient, and believing. This puts us in our proper place. Hezekiah profits from God’s love, but he cannot embody it, nor replace it, nor carry it to others. If Jerusalem is saved, it is not because of his faith. It is because of God’s love for him. If the man to whom we bear witness is saved, it is neither by encounter with us, nor by our words, nor because of our self-giving, but because God has chosen to love man as the expression of his self-love. “For my own sake!” Because God gives himself to his creature, because the love of God for God includes the creature, because God invests the creature with himself. And all this is done in Jesus Christ, not because Jesus has succeeded in emptying himself by some asceticism but because God has divested himself of God for love of himself. All this is done in Jesus Christ, in him alone, and in none other; we cannot pretend either to imitate him or to reproduce him. We can only profit by what is done totally and definitively and once for all. Jerusalem is saved, Jerusalem but not the Assyrian. There must be no confusion at this point. God has not sworn any fidelity to a conquering people. He has chosen it as a scourge, as an executioner, but not as the agent of his love, even though he also encloses it in his love. Here is the whole difference between the church and the world.
The miracle now comes. Pestilence strikes the Assyrian army and it is almost annihilated. The king returns to Nineveh, and after a time he is assassinated by his own sons while prostrated before one of his gods (Nisroch? it should be noted that nothing is known of this god; perhaps it is a faulty transcription of Nusku or Narduk, or possibly a play on words). While we need not stress the point, the historicity of the two events should be observed. According to an Egyptian tradition an invasion of rats caused the flight and death of the Assyrians. Now we know that antiquity was already aware of the relation between rats and plague. It is also true that in 681 B.C. Sennacherib was slain by two of his sons. We need not draw any conclusions as to the accuracy of prophecy, since we have said already that prophecy is not primarily prediction. We may simply remark that the chronicler was not badly informed historically. But this is not the important point. Our stress must be on the fact that the Assyrian did not enter Jerusalem. The limit of his power had indeed been set. The judgment was fulfilled. Furthermore there is a hit at the Assyrian god. It was in his temple, prostrated before him, that Sennacherib was assassinated. This is the reply to the statement that Yahweh is an idol like others, made by men and unable to protect them against the Assyrian. In fact it is the Assyrian god who is unable to protect his worshiper and king. This simple subordinate clause is God’s decision in relation to false gods. Finally, it is important to note that for almost the first time in this series of stories a miracle takes place with no help from man at all. This miracle does not come by way of man. It is from heaven. An army is shattered—and all the king does is to pray and all the prophet does is to speak. As noted, this is an exceptional case. At issue here is more than the war, more than the survival of Judah, more than the liberation of Jerusalem. At issue is God’s honor. We observe that the miracle of God corresponds to the direct insult addressed by man to God. We ourselves need not seek means to avenge God’s honor. God alone avenges his honor. We should simply bow in fear and trembling before this incomprehensible expression of the dignity of his love.
But this raises the specific problem of the intervention of miracle in history. The problem is not that of the Christian or biblical view of history. We shall studiously avoid that here. Our concern is with a particular point. We must dare to take human history as it is without changing its substance or interpreting it as we fancy or throwing a Christian mantle over the concrete facts. There are certainly causalities and correlations in history. The historian is not at fault in trying to find an explanation in previous events. There are economic and political causes for a war and sociological causes for a political regime. Institutions stand in relation to economic, demographic, and ideological phenomena. To be sure, the more facts we know, the harder it is to establish causalities and the more obscure they are. But it is on this horizontal level that we must tackle the question.
Above all we must not try to push God into the system, whether by making him the cause of causes or by establishing a hierarchy in causality. Human causes are adequate, but they do not give events either meaning or direction. A second element has to enter in, and in spite of hostile prejudices we should like to call it ordination or even fatality. Our point is that there is a kind of logic discernible in the evolution of a society or of institutions and events. There are significant and intractable regularities. There are social and economic laws (though we do not give this word the more precise sense it might have in physics). There are irresistible developments in historical processes. Men may do the impossible and yet they cannot halt the course of things or arrest the implacable march of events. Institutions have a weight of their own which causes them to go where men sometimes do not want them to go. There are instances of ineluctable declension. Here, then, are some of the many aspects of what we have called fatality in history. And often those whom we call great men are simply a personal expression of historical fatality. We have the impression that they make history when history would have been more or less the same without them so long as we do not identify the whole of history with the most detailed or superficial event. Yet this fatality is not always the same. There is no all-embracing “Weltgeist” nor exhaustive dialectical explanation. Nor does this fatality affect all men in the same way. Kautsky was right when he showed that at certain points the movement of history is irresistible no matter what may be the intentions or efforts of man, while at others man has a limited possibility of modifying, bending, arresting, or dividing the course of events. Finally, in this sketch of the constituents of history so far as a lay eye can see it, there is indisputably an element of progress, at least in the sense of an evolution or acquired accumulation of instruments, institutions, and sensibilities, if not in the sense of moral or, in the true sense, intellectual progress. It seems as though there is a kind of movement towards the amelioration of man’s condition or situation. This progress must be taken seriously even though we should not ascribe infinite value or attribute intrinsic significance to it. This progress is no guarantee at all that history is progress. There may be such long periods of regression that inevitably visions of catastrophe arise. It is no surprise that the period from the fourth to the ninth century should give birth to the pathology of A.D. 1000. The idea that history is progress can be held only by a generation which lives in a society in which there have been some 500 years of accumulated advance. The incontestable fact of progress explains the positive judgment we can have on history, our ideology and our beliefs on the subject. But it does not permit us to affirm that history is progress in itself. Nor does it authorize us to think that progress may be qualitatively understood as the good.
It is in this historical universe and no other that we have to raise the problem of miracle. If we think of God as the Lord of history who inscribes his will directly in our history, then there is no reason for any specific interest in miracle. What we are tempted to call miracle is that which cannot be explained by causality, that which is abnormal compared with the normal flow of things. What seems to suppress the force of events, what disturbs predictable evolution without our knowing why, may sometimes be (except in the cases already mentioned) the man of genius. All economic and sociological explanations dash themselves in vain against the appearance of this kind of gratuitous act for which there are neither roots nor rational explanations. An Alexander or Joan of Arc cannot be explained by any historical rationality. Then there is the mysterious collective fact, whether in direct relation to man or of concern to him. We may mention the sudden disappearance of the bear from caves at a pre-historical time when its development was a direct threat to the existence of the human species. The Arab explosion in 600 and the spread of Marxism between 1880 and 1910 are similar events without either logic or satisfying explanation at the purely human level. History can merely note the facts, go as far as possible in seeking correlations, and then admit that there is an imponderable and strictly independent factor which can neither be grasped nor assimilated and which implies an element of indeterminacy, although there is, of course, no need to see in it the hand of God or to speak of a miracle. In the presence of these phenomena, however, the Christian is obliged to put the problem of their significance for faith and consequently to raise the question of miracles, though he must be careful not to see in this an explanation, nor to press it on non-Christians, nor to think it entitles him to make of it a piece of apologetic. Miracles exist for faith, and God adopts this manner of speaking for those who believe.
Reciprocally the Bible teaches us in effect that God intervenes in the course of events. But, as we have frequently noted, he seldom does so in an explosive, strange, and incomprehensible way. To be sure, one might say that we have here the basis of the theopolitics of Isaiah. God genuinely inserts himself into the course of politics. He acts at his own level, and for Isaiah miracle is the instrument of this insertion. In each miracle God penetrates into the city. He takes it in hand. He makes himself its Lord. In each miracle he contests the authority of the political power, the political autonomy that man always claims, the independent right of man to make history. In each miracle he gives concrete shape to an epoch of divine sovereignty. He forces man to confront him. God has always the full and perfect freedom to act in this surprising and disruptive fashion, to be the supernatural which shatters the course of the natural, with all due deference to Robinson and the rest. But we must carefully avoid the error of assimilating the incomprehensible fact, which the historian can recognize and circle at once, to the objective intervention of God, as though both were miracles. The incomprehensible fact may be a miracle, but a miracle is first God’s act, then God’s revelation in the interests of the man on whom he has acted, and finally the discerning of the significance for man of this divine intervention; these are the three elements which constitute a miracle.
It is in this sense that one may say there is no miracle except for faith, although absolutely not in the Bultmannian sense, and this is not the faith which from the human standpoint sees a miracle in any event. Any historical event may be revealed by God to be his intervention, and the meaning which results therefrom for faith differs from that which man may attribute to the fact. In the destruction of the Assyrian army, for example, the Egyptians find an explanation in an invasion by rats, and legend even adds that the rats ate the strings of the bows and the straps of the harnesses, so that the Assyrians found themselves without equipment and had to leave. A modern person would regard the pestilence as an epidemic, and the fact that it had important historical consequences does not change its character as such. What is presented to us in the story as a typical explosive miracle representative of the irrational in history—the angel of the Lord destroying the Assyrians— may thus be viewed also from a rational angle. The important thing, then, is God’s revelation that he himself is at work here. Yet he was also at work in the ravages of Hazael, and we get no impression of a series of irrational facts in this case. Now we must always bear in mind that the nub of the problem of miracles is to be found in the condemnation and death of Jesus Christ on the cross (more so than in the resurrection, which is radically outside all categories, even that of miracle). We have here a historical event. It took place and can be dated. Jesus Christ was condemned and put to death. In itself this amounts to no more than the death of Spartacus. But the miracle is that he who died on the cross is God himself; he is strictly God intervening in human history, in time, and in the history of each individual. The miracle is that God enters into the life of man even to the point of this death. All other miracles receive their significance from this. And moving on to the relation between a naturalistic view of history and the intervention of the Wholly Other, we may say that the miracle is, in Jesus Christ, that which excludes natural causalities (not for themselves; this is not in itself the miracle) by breaking historical fatality. This is the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ at the intersection of history. It is the incarnation of the Word, and the death of the Incarnate, which interrupts the process of fatality. Here is the authentic event that takes place once for all and can never be reproduced. There is no other authentic event after this one, dated and known. It is quite improper to think that the event can begin again in each of our lives. There is only a contemporaneity which the Spirit ascribes to our actual life as it is carried back to this moment when historical fatality was broken. And it is the fact that God had to die which shows us the gravity and depth and pressure of the fatality. Yet we must not interpret the fact of this unique event as a separation of time into two periods, the one enslaved to fatality, the other free. For all the miracles before Jesus Christ, all the divine interventions in the normal course of history, all the liberations granted by God, find their true point and orientation and weight in the miracle of Jesus Christ. If we return to our previous analysis of the three elements in miracle, Jesus Christ brings the third element into everything that took place prior to him.
Again, subsequent to the great shattering of fatality, the point is not that fatality in the sense used has been annulled or effaced, so that every man is now confronted by a blank page on which he may write without any condition or constraint. Necessity still obtains in the course of history. The historical context cannot be blotted out. There is no intrinsic victory of freedom in history. The death of Jesus Christ does not mean that a strange power which has conditioned history thus far has been annihilated. History and society are still very much subject to constraints. But the breaking of the chain of constraints by the cross has incalculable historical consequences. It is the white horse which goes through the world with the three others and intermingles its action with theirs. Historical forces are, as it were, unceasingly repairing the web of necessity, and in different forms the web is being broken, annulled, and disrupted afresh by the action of the power of freedom unleashed at the cross. For Jesus Christ has set in motion the power of freedom, and he has done this very concretely in the course of history, though this does not mean that history has become a kind of triumphal march, stage by stage, of victories for freedom. Our own age shows the very opposite. What has been done and gained is that a man or men can now acquire the power of freedom, and by them miracles may be done in history.
There is no generality or necessity about this. It is not certain that men will perform these miracles. They are under no constraint. Nor is it necessary that it should be Christians who perform them. The door is open to man, and man may enter. When he makes this decision, when he undertakes the tremendous risk of reintroducing freedom into the course of history, then, whether he knows it or not, he has with him all the power of God, the power destroyed at the cross, but the power which is historical because it has willed to spill over into history like a dead body giving fertility to the earth. This man now changes the profound reality of history even though he is not a great man, a general, or a politician, and even though the apparent event of economic crisis or military victory or stability of government is in no way altered. He changes the profound reality of history because it is no longer a mechanism. He slips a new factor into the totality of pieces, causes, and factors. Conversely, when a man will not accept this power, the aggressiveness of necessity becomes more total and stifling. The power of miracles which has been set in the course of history by Jesus Christ is not a neutral power subject to man’s control. The Word of God itself is a power of life or a power of death. In history, too, there is the chance of miracle or of disaster and collapse. This is already written in filigree in the series of stories from Second Kings on which we have been meditating. If man grasps this grace and freedom he fulfils both his own being and also God’s design, for God writes his design in this freedom which man assumes and which forces destiny. This is miracle. But if man neglects this divine power for freedom, the miracle accomplished in Jesus Christ, then he may do many important things in history, but only within the framework of necessity and by the force of things. In truth the freedom of man attained in Jesus Christ is what really makes history. The crowds who obey sociological or economic laws do not make history; they repeat it. The freedom of man is a miraculous phenomenon which is decisive for history. When men express freedom, they are witnesses to the act of the Creator God in history.
But there are other men who alone present the true meaning of history; these are the prophets. These two kinds of free men are the miracle of God. What, then, is the meaning of this miracle? If we are to judge by the miracles which God did in the course of Old Testament history, and which all express the love of God in freedom, history is by nature a combination of forces, and always tends to reproduce constraints and to establish the bondage of man under one form or another. At every stage it finally results in an intolerable situation. Hence it has constantly to be called in question both as history and also as result or situation. There has to be reintroduced into it the truth of freedom so that one part of the reality of history itself may be upheld and man may enjoy and express his autonomy and bring forth its fruits, but so that the other part too may move towards the final goal which God has marked out for it. The first element reminds us that if the reality of man’s action is not respected we shall finish up with “nonhistory,” with a kind of nontemporal installation such as, e.g., the attainment of the communist city, or, indeed, what is implied by a theocratic interpretation of history.
The second element reminds us that God fixes an orientation to history and that the truth of this is the free fulfilment of his plan and purpose. Miracle comes in at the minor level, as here in the liberation of Jerusalem, which serves to attest God’s love for it and to grant it a breathingspace. But the miracle in Jesus Christ implies that henceforth the goal of history can be attained by the deliberate act of man responding to the love of God by way of the cross.