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The Politics of God and the Politics of Man by Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. The book was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.

Chapter 6: Rabshakeh

2 Kings 18:17-37

17 And the king of Assyria sent (the) Tartan, (the) Rabsaris, and (the) Rabshakeh1 with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Fuller’s Field. 18 And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.

19 And (the) Rabshakeh said to them, "Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this confidence of yours? 20 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me? 21 Behold, you are relying now on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. 22 But if you say to me, "We rely on the Lord our God," is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, "You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem"? 23 Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders upon them. 24 How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants, when you rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? 25 Moreover, is it without the Lord that I have come up against this place to destroy it? The Lord said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.’

26 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, said to (the) Rabshakeh, "Pray, speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall." 27 But (the) Rabshakeh said to them, "Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?"

28 Then (the) Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, "Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah make you to rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 31 Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat of his own vine, and every one of his own fig tree, and every one of you will drink the water of his own cistern; 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The Lord will deliver us. 33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’

36 But the people were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, "Do not answer him." 37 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of (the) Rabshakeh.

Ahaz the politician supported the most powerful nation, Assyria, against the weakest nations, Syria and Israel. He helped Assyria to eliminate them. He played his cards as a realistic and effective politician, and won. But he ignored the constant political law that a power which expands rapidly necessarily begins to oppress its allies and becomes increasingly demanding. Ahaz thought he could protect Judah and Jerusalem by his adroit politics. This was true for a time, but in the long run he delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Assyria. This is how it turned out. Assyria no longer had any serious rivals in the area and its ancient ally now became in its eyes a mere servant subject to its orders and without any kind of independence. Any attempt to go its own way was severely punished. About twenty years later Jerusalem itself was besieged under the reign of the son of Ahaz, Hezekiah. During the siege there took place an incident that was commonplace enough in itself. An Assyrian representative, Rabshakeh, came with a deputation to receive the submission of the besieged city. He made two speeches. The first was diplomatic and the second a piece of propaganda. They must have made a great impression, for they have been carefully preserved. They are in fact most remarkable, and in the present series they are an excellent example of the word of the world.2

Rabshakeh speaks politically. He says what the political world can and usually will say in confrontation with the church. He is a typical representative of what we are constantly told, and his speeches are of devastating realism. A modern statesman would not need to change a single word. He says precisely what the world says, and this sheds new light on the relation between God and politics.

King Hezekiah sends to meet the Assyrian generals a delegation (even though they had demanded his own presence) consisting of his intendant, secretary, and archivist. The meeting takes place near Jerusalem by the conduit on the road leading to the Fuller’s Field. It can be seen from the walls of Jerusalem. The delegates probably want to negotiate but Rabshakeh asks for unconditional surrender. His speech is theoretically addressed to the delegates alone and is diplomatic in character, but in fact it is spoken in a loud voice in Hebrew, so that the people of Jerusalem on the walls can hear.


In fact Rabshakeh has five arguments. He first gives a reminder of what is needed in political action, namely, sagacity and force, calculation and power. The king of Judah has made a bid for independence, but he does not have the material power to resist the king of Assyria, and his political calculations in the search for allies have proved to be wrong. He is a sorry politician; all he has is words. In this context this possibly means that he invokes God or justice or humanity. He perhaps tries to tell the Assyrians what is right and true. But this is all words; in the long run it has no importance. Politics cannot be pursued with mere words. This analysis of the situation in politics is rigorously accurate and we cannot improve on it today. Politics consists of exact calculation and the power to intervene. Rabshakeh is obviously right. Politics cannot rely on values or sentiments. It cannot serve other things. It is measured by the success of what it undertakes. It has its own goal. Those who use it as a means to accomplish something more lofty will either deceive themselves or fail.

Values, sentiments, and opinions are among the given factors which the sagacious calculation of politics will take into account, but there can be no question of achieving justice or truth by politics. These are the illusions of theoreticians, of a king of Judah who trusts in words. In the eyes of the world this kind of thing can be viewed only as words. King Hezekiah is a poor politician. He has miscalculated. He has not been successful in seeking allies to support his revolt against Sennacherib. He is without power. "How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants?" The second argument gives greater precision to the thinking of Rabshakeh, It relates to the political mistake of Hezekiah. To try to free himself from the burdensome alliance with Sennacherib, to whom he had to give a large tribute of gold, silver, and slaves, he has turned to the great power in the West to Egypt, to find the assistance which will counterbalance the power of the East. But Egypt is defeated, and Sennacherib regards the diplomatic maneuvering as open revolt. Hezekiah is thus wrong in thinking that Egypt can give effective help. This is an unpardonable political blunder. Pharaoh is a broken reed which will pierce the hand of any who lean on it. The argument is devastating, for it applies with greater force against Hezekiah than anyone else. In relation to any other king the point of Rabshakeh’s speech is limited to what we have said, namely, that there has been here a mistake in military and diplomatic calculation. But in relation to the king of the chosen people.

How many times has God told and retold his people by the prophets that they should not rely on human means. When nourished by manna, they were not to gather and store it as human prudence would dictate. When attacked they were not to trust in arms or numbers. Gideon reduces his army until he has only three hundred men. David rejects the armor, helmet, and sword provided for him by Saul. In famine they were to be ready to lose even what they had in order to receive from God’s hand. The widow uses up the last of her flour and oil to feed the prophet; after that they would die. But God’s grace is inexhaustible. In spite of all that can be said, in spite of every secular argument to justify money and the state and science and technology, to show that we are right to use these things, it is quite unbiblical to appeal to these agents of political power. To do so is defiance of God par excellence. It is to reject God himself. No theological constructions can prevail against the rigor of the choice which God demands and which is not just spiritual and inward. Take no money, nor purse, nor two tunics.

If Hezekiah has been finally defeated, it is because he, the righteous and pious king, the king who is completely faithful, has been unfaithful. And it is again politics which has led him astray from God. Instead of relying on the exclusive power of the Eternal, instead of trusting in the sole Lord and committing himself to his decision, he has organized his little coalition, engaged in his petty diplomacy, and tried to find another ally, the king of Egypt, in addition to God. But this king, as so often, is a broken reed and pierces the hand of the one who relies on this human resource. And Scripture continually shows us that when God’s chosen people tries to find other means apart from God to survive, to conquer, to protect itself, then it is attacked and endangered by the very thing in which it trusts. We think of Jonah, or the brazen serpent. Jesus lays down the permanent law in relation to this fact. Where our treasure is, there is our heart also. It is destroyed with the perishable things which the world places at our disposal in order to seduce us and to win our confidence, far away from God and completely outside him. Hezekiah is not just wrong in his political calculations, as politics, too, can show. He has failed to see who his true Lord is. He has relied on human means, valid though these may be, for the problem is not primarily a moral one. This is what Isaiah has told him very forcefully (Isaiah 3 1:1, 3). The king has already been warned by God.

Hence Rabshakeh puts his finger on the sorest spot without realizing it. He unwittingly pronounces a divine judgment on Hezekiah. It is often thus. In the word it speaks to the church, in its judgments and criticisms, the world often speaks at two levels. In explicit content, and according to its own express intention, what it says is of little worth and simply expresses secular mediocrity. Thus Rabshakeh tells Hezekiah he would have done better to rely on the stronger power of Assyria.

But behind this word, even though the world is unaware of it, there is hidden a profound truth which faith can apprehend because it descries God’s intention. Hezekiah knows that he is reproved for having trusted in Egypt, but that he would have been guilty of the same error if he had trusted in Assyria. The reproach of Rabshakeh is true even if wrongly motivated; God’s chosen people should not rely on Egypt. Hezekiah, however, sees here more than a lesson in political realism. He grasps the fact that the Lord is his only strength. He also learns the lesson, as we shall see.

It is at this level and within these limits that the church should be infinitely attentive to the criticisms and attacks of unbelievers or enemies. It should not accept their advice or motivation but should look behind this to the judgment which God pronounces on it, and which may be the very opposite of what the world has in view. For the church does not have to follow the logic of the world’s political lesson. It must follow God’s logic. Thus the obvious conclusion for Rabshakeh is that, since Egypt has proved a false ally, there should be a return to Assyria. But the conclusion for Hezekiah should be that neither Egypt nor Assyria, but God alone, is the one on whom his people must rely. In addition Rabshakeh presents what he regards as the other element in the alternative, and this is his third argument. After the threat he is full of offers and promises. Abandon Egypt and the king of Assyria will shower you with gifts. If Jerusalem surrenders, Rabshakeh in the king’s name offers two thousand horses, if, as he ironically adds, there are enough riders to mount them.3

The horse was very rare in Israel at this period and the offer to mount a squadron was unexpected. But the implication is that the king should abase himself before Sennacherib, that he should definitively recognize his suzerainty, and that he should hand over Jerusalem. To the degree that Rabshakeh can see no other possibility, there being only the one choice, his reasoning is cogent and should convince any politician. But to the degree that Hezekiah can hear God’s reproach through the lips of the Assyrian, what is offered or proposed is the very thing he cannot accept. He is thrown back irresistibly on God.

Now Rabshakeh obviously does not ignore this possibility. We thus find two other arguments of great importance; they are constantly found in secular discourse. "You may say: It is on Yahweh, our God, that we rely. . . ." A rational politician cannot rely on God; politics is not religion. But Rabshakeh is acquainted with the reforms of Hezekiah.4 Hezekiah has removed holy things, the Canaanite deities, the brazen serpent which had become an object of worship, the more or less pagan cultic sites. He has re-established the strict cult of Yahweh with only one sanctuary. Now even if the Assyrian knows of the reforms he is fundamentally unable to understand them. How can you trust in the true God when you have just done things displeasing to all gods? You have broken down altars, destroyed statues, and suppressed holy things. God has to be jealous for holy things. The Assyrian evidently thinks in terms of a divine solidarity familiar to the people of his age. In his view, since these altars and statues were in the territory of Judah, the local god was bound to be interested and involved at this point. This was an attack on him. What he cannot understand is that Yahweh is not a God like all the rest, that he is in fact a Wholly Other, that he is not subject to the common measure, and that when he confronts what men call god the only possible issue is the annihilation of the gods. We have here a constant misconception on the part of the world. The natural man has to live. He cannot see the importance of truth. He can only scoff at theological debates, at the Byzantines. He cannot attach any importance to the inner life of the church. He reproaches the church for concerning itself with theology when there are so many good works to do. The world makes the same realistic speech as Rabshakeh: "Do not cast your gaze on God; look at the reality of the world. In any case, you have displeased this God. He is against you. He will not come to your aid." Here again we have a speech compounded of truth and illusion. The reason Rabshakeh advances is ridiculous and shows in effect that the natural man has no understanding, like twentieth-century man, who finds some Protestants more acceptable because they at least do not believe in stupid miracles, in the nativity and the resurrection!

But Hezekiah himself has to see a truth here. Yahweh is even more demanding. What has been done is not yet enough to show how different he is. If the reform had been more radical, perhaps the pagan would have begun to see that God is indeed wholly other. When criticized by the world, the church does not have to agree that the world is right and that it must take part in social and political action as the world advises. What it must see is that it has not been able to show with sufficient intransigence, rigor, absoluteness, holiness, and separateness, how different God is. If Rabshakeh can confuse God and the gods at this point, it is because Hezekiah has not gone far enough in his break with the world. This is what the church should tell itself as it listens to the criticisms of the world, which wants it to serve a kindly God who is practical, utilitarian, and progressive.

Poor Rabshakeh, how mistaken he is, and especially when he thinks the Lord will assuredly not come to the aid of a people that has displeased him! He measures God by the standard of his own false gods and personal ideas. It is true that everything in this world avenges itself, that every offense has to be paid for, that every insult to the gods leads to death, especially if this god is the king. But Rabshakeh does not know the Lord. The Lord is not like others. He is rich in goodness, full of compassion and mercy. He does not will that the sinner should perish. How could the Assyrian know that even if God has been offended, nevertheless he will not abandon his people? He will defend it just the same. He will save it and heal it. Rabshakeh’s theological reasoning is of no value. The church has nothing to learn from the world regarding the God who is the true God. The world can speak only about its experience and wisdom and limits and interpretation of the divine. This is not to be despised, but it has nothing to do with God. The only thing is that the wise or solemn declarations of the world about God can disturb Israel, the church, and the Christian. They can lead them astray. They can cause them to confuse the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was in Jesus Christ, with all that the world is talking about. This, as we have seen, was the confusion of which Jeroboam was guilty. And this ambiguity leads to the final argument of Rabshakeh, the irresistible argument: "Is it without the Lord that I have come up against this place to destroy it? The Lord said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it." This is a logical continuation of the previous point. You have displeased your God, and your God has thus sent me to destroy you.

Rabshakeh admits the existence of this God. His pantheon is not exclusive. He refers to this God. He even allows that Yahweh is the God of the land or territory. It is with his permission and at his command that things have reached this pass. From the Assyrian’s standpoint there is nothing derisive or hypocritical about this saying. But the question he puts is the most terrible one a non-Christian can put to a Christian. Is it God’s will that wars should come, that Hitler should rise to power, that communism should obliterate Christianity in China? The argument is the classical one. Either God is omnipotent and creates evil, or he is not omnipotent.

In any case, this argument is designed to shatter completely the confidence of Israel. For it is true that God has commanded Assyria to invade Judah. The scourge of God who mocks God’s will is still speaking the truth when he claims to be the scourge of God. The error here is that of using God in the speech, of making him a tool of propaganda, of trying to exploit him. Here again what the world says about God is radically mistaken even though it expresses something which Israel must see to be true and contains a very profound truth which Rabshakeh himself does not believe. But when this profound truth, which is confirmed by the prophet Isaiah, is received and heard, should it lead to psychological collapse, to surrender and passivity? In other words, even if the Assyrian is in effect the scourge of God, does this mean that to fight against him is to fight against God? The argument is often heard that misery is a test imposed by God and so the wretches who suffer it must not revolt. Hitler is God’s scourge and so he must not be resisted. We hear the same today regarding communism. What we forget is that in such matters God’s aim is not a political one. The point is not at all that Assyria or Germany should become a great nation, nor that the economic system should be socialist. God uses the Assyrian in order that his people should really become his people again in truth, in humility, in sanctity, in authenticity. What happens has to do with Israel or the church, and not the state or capitalism or socialism. To repent and to accept the punishment does not at all imply passivity. Once God’s intention is perceived and accepted, then in faith, and in virtue of faith, there is need, politically, to act against the one who shows himself to be God’s enemy.

Poor Rabshakeh, at this point too he fails to see that this God is not like his own gods, that the Lord does not punish forever, that he not only unleashes the scourge but also holds it back, that he finds no satisfaction in the Assyrian terror and the church’s misery, that he does not will the death of the sinner and hence does not will the final victory of Assyria. It is true that the conqueror has come thus far by God’s will, and that he can proclaim this. But what he does not know is that he can go no further, that his limit has already been reached. For what he fails to see is that he himself is only an instrument in God’s hands in his relation to Israel, the church. In other spheres he may have a great measure of autonomy or independence. But here he is only a chopper, and can the chopper vaunt itself when in the hands of the woodcutter? It is one thing when the state is in its own domain and quite another when it is in positive or negative confrontation with the church. Here the autonomy of power is strictly controlled by the intention of God for his people. But to know this and to believe it there is need of total commitment to God, of repentance, of acceptance of God’s will, of readiness to see it through to the end. "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26: 39). This is where the concrete question is bound to arise, and how often do we hear it in the Psalms and Revelation: "0 Sovereign Lord. . . how long.. . ?" (Revelation 6:10). For we do not know in advance where God has set the limit. We do not know where the scourge will halt. Only faith and repentance can give at one and the same time both the patience to endure and also the courage to fight the invader. But for others the argument is terribly convincing and even decisive. For Israel it is a reason for yielding, for surrender. This is why, when Israel’s envoys hear this terrible argument, they ask Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic (the common language of the Middle East, but a language which at this period was not yet generally understood in Israel). They, the responsible ones, can listen to this argument and not be shaken by it. But they are afraid of its psychological impact on the crowd which is massed on the walls and which can also hear it. They have little confidence in the faith and solidity of the masses. They think the arguments of Rabshakeh are strong enough to sway them.


But when Rabshakeh sees their fears he redoubles his efforts and makes another speech which is much cruder but which is a good specimen of propaganda. He now addresses the crowd directly with a view to bringing about the movement that will lead to surrender. He begins by reminding the people of their miserable condition, of the famine, and he insists that they are in desperate straits. Then come three modes of psychological action which remind us of modern propaganda. His first aim is to separate the crowd from the leaders. "Hezekiah is deceiving you. Do not listen to Hezekiah." This is a classical device, to shake the confidence of the masses in their political rulers, to accuse the head of state, to make oneself out to be a liberator. "Hezekiah is deceiving you but we are men of good faith. Hezekiah is using the devices of propaganda to lead you astray (v. 32) but I who now speak to you am absolutely honest. Again, we are not fighting against the people of Israel but only against the clique of king, heads, and rulers. Once you get rid of these (and you should do this yourselves), then peace will reign."

This is familiar political propaganda, but we should remember that it is also the traditional position of the world in relation to the church. "Poor people, exploited by horrible priests and monks. Look at the wealth of bishops and the corpulence of canons while you faint with hunger. You are led astray by stories and fables. You are indoctrinated by theology, the catechism, and faith in general. We have now come to set you free." (It should not be forgotten that in modern times Napoleon and Hitler are among those who have taken to themselves the title of liberator.) "We are honest. We have no self-interest in telling you this. But those who keep you in the servitude of faith really do so for sordid selfish reasons." And when the world begins a religious persecution, whether it be the Convention, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Rajk, or Castro, it is never aimed against poor believers, whose good they are really seeking, but always against a clique of exploiters of Christianity. Nor is the reason for it found in hostility to the faith but rather in the fact that this clique is against the regime, is engaged in a plot, is supporting international Jewry, or is fighting for the great capitalists.

Rabshakeh’s speech is frighteningly modern. This ought to be a reminder that it discloses what will always be the world’s attitude to the church and what arguments will be used to the end of history in the world’s case against it. The charge which tries to divide the confessors of the faith or guides of the flock from the general assembly of God’s people, so that the latter become as sheep without a shepherd and as men carried about with every wind of doctrine, is remarkably successful even to our own day.

The denunciation of bad rulers is then followed by the promise: "If you throw off the king (priests, the church, etc.), if you make peace with me, Rabshakeh, the world, then you will be happy. Every one of you will eat of his own vine . . . and I will take you away to a rich and plentiful land where you will live a good life. In fact, if you are hungry and miserable, if you cannot eat of the fruit of your vine, it is the fault of the exploiters and of the church which is on the side of the exploiters. But if you leave the faith, if you stop putting your hope in a future which is promised by God but which is a mere illusion, if you will make a pact with me and work for me—the prince of the world—then you will find happiness. I will lead you into a land of affluence. You will live and not die. . . ." We recognize again the argument of anti-Christian propaganda. There is nothing new here. "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me" (Matthew 4:9). From Eden on we know how much this promise is worth, and yet it always succeeds. Whether for power or for happiness man is always ready to leave his Lord. The argument is particularly devastating today, for it is addressed precisely to the deprived, to workers, to those who live in underdeveloped countries (who are in even worse case than the besieged in Jerusalem), and it is true enough on its negative side. There really are exploiters. There is an oppressive elite. This was true in Israel in the days of Rabshakeh. At this very time Micah was vigorously denouncing injustice, hoarding, and the exploitation of the poor. Women were being driven out of their homes, the poor were being stripped of their very skin, and the princes of the house of Israel were perverting the law. They were building Jerusalem with wrong, while the prophets were prophesying for money (Micah 3-4). Thus moral collapse and social injustice characterized Jerusalem and the chosen people. Rabshakeh’s speech rests on accurate data. His propaganda is aimed at a people which has experienced all this. This is why his argument is so strong. This is also why what I have written above does not mean that the church is right and good and that the world is attacking it unjustly. The world’s propaganda against Christians and the church states things which are incontestably true. Like all good propaganda, the attack on the church is well supported. But like all propaganda it is radically false. It is untrue on two counts: first as regards the promises of Rabshakeh, and then as regards his honesty. For, although he claims that the church lies and he does not, Rabshakeh also lies, for his promises are false and are merely a trap.

When he says the church is on the side of the oppressors and he comes to bring happiness he is lying, for he is a worse oppressor than any before him. While it is true that the poor in Israel are being exploited by the rich, it is also true that when they have been conquered and deported they will be exploited far worse. If they have been enslaved by the great, when they are in the hands of strangers they will be enslaved far worse. "I will take you to an affluent land. . . ." But we know how the kings of Assyria treated conquered peoples. The skins of carved up people covered the walls of the palaces. This is the promised happiness. Here is the lie in the propaganda which the world uses to try to detach men from the church.

A second lie relates to the injustices in Israel on the basis of which Rabshakeh seeks to induce the people to renounce its God. This is once again the traditional line. "Christians are unworthy. It is easy to prove this. The church is not the kingdom of God. God does not exist. Do not let yourselves be deluded into living by faith. God will not save. God will not console. God will not revive. Those who make these fair promises are merely speaking empty words. It is in their own interests and for their own advantage that they speak about God (and in fact God can be a good propaganda point, and Hezekiah was the first to be threatened, and he would not listen to Sennacherib but insisted that Jerusalem should hold out to the last). The aim is to keep you in bondage and exploitation (we note in passing that this is the serpent’s charge against God himself). Stop looking forward to a future fashioned by God. Make your own future, or rather, trust Sennacherib to make it for you. Stop looking to heaven for deliverance and the establishment of justice. It is within your reach. Simply surrender and bow before the might of the world. Stop believing in this useless God and make reasonable decisions which can be calculated on the human level." This is how Rabshakeh continues in forceful and realistic terms.

And now comes the usual conclusion which is designed to bring the besieged to their knees. God does not will to deliver you. It is not now because of the wickedness of the great that Israel or Christians should turn from God. The world progresses by attacking God himself. And the As-syrian argument is just the same as that used today. This God of whom you speak is just like the gods of all the nations. What have these gods been able to do against the conqueror? Has any of them saved his land from the hands of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad, of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? They have been swept away along with those who believed in them. Yahweh is no greater than any of these. Why should he be able to save Jerusalem? How often have we heard this? The gods of the Polynesians or Bantus could not protect these peoples. These gods were man’s creation, the product of his culture. They perished when men ceased to believe in them. Hence things happened quite apart from them. The same applies to Jesus Christ. In dechristianized nations things go just as well and even, strictly speaking, better. What actually remains, the only enduring reality, is the greatness of man, who creates gods and destroys them. Has anything been done with God’s help as great as the miracles performed by man with science once he has divested himself of God? The story of man is strewn with the corpses of his gods just as the victorious march of Sennacherib was littered with shattered idols. It is now the turn of Jesus Christ. Know your age. Your age is that of the glory of Sennacherib, the glory of man. One can relate the two exactly, for the most modern statement is just the same as that of the victorious Assyrian: "It is by the force of my hand that I have acted. It is by my own wisdom. For I am intelligent. I have pushed back the frontiers of the world. Like a hero, I have overthrown all that was seated on a throne. I have gathered all the earth" (Isaiah 10: 12-14). Were these words really written in the seventh century B.C.? Do they not sum up the whole thinking of modern man? And when Rabshakeh shows the besieged the futility of their faith and the uselessness of their prayers, we have precisely the same situation as that which obtains today when the church is besieged by the world. Rabshakeh bases his case on facts: the brilliant victories and Assyrian might. The world bases its case on facts: the miracles of science and progress. The aim is the same, namely, that Jerusalem should accept these reasonable and obvious arguments, that Christians should follow in the train of the world. There is no alternative. Politics has led us to generalize the problem, for it is in reality general, but politics is the point where opposition crystallizes, and all the powers allied against the Lord meet at this point.


Confronted by this propaganda address, the people is silent. We are not told that it remains untouched or unmoved, or that it is not tempted to go along with Rabshakeh. It undoubtedly is. This is inevitable. But it has received orders from the king to say nothing, to give no answer, whether in the form of polemic or in that of dialogue. This again is full of good sense. It is full of good sense, this act of a defeated and hungry people which still has confidence in its king and obeys his orders. It would be well for the broken church with which we are familiar today, for the people of God, if it could still trust in its leaders and accept their advice and respect them. When the world attacks the church in this way, when the state launches its offensive, silence alone is legitimate. Within the church today there is too much preoccupation with "not making proselytes" or "not engaging in apologetics," as though we were still in the age of a socially triumphant church using propaganda against poor and defenseless innocents. This view of the situation is outdated. In fact the church is now the prey of propaganda. It is assaulted by political propaganda. But in this new situation polemics and apologetics are no longer legitimate. In face of the propaganda with which the world attacks the church, the church can only keep silence, for no true witness to God is now possible. No reply can be given to Rabshakeh. Whatever one might say would have no meaning for him. Propaganda interdicts all witness to the Lord. The use of propaganda is contrary to the declaration of the gospel. Counter-propaganda cannot be used against the man who himself uses propaganda. The only way the church can take is that of silence. Silence and not dialogue! I have often said that the Christian’s vocation in the world, and especially in politics, is that of dialogue, not merely the dialogue of Christian and unbeliever, which is banal, but the dialogue of enemies and of those who do not understand one another, in which the Christian can play the role of bridge or interpreter, helping them to understand one another. But this dialogue cannot be initiated no matter how or at what cost.

With a glorious and powerful figure who seeks to detach us from our God, to ensure the triumph of the world, to use propaganda to revive the temptation with which Jesus was tempted, to bring the church under submission to money or the state, there is no dialogue, for dialogue is not a value of its own and is not the supreme expression of the Christian life. The only option in such a case is silence, and, as we shall soon see, repentance and prayer. No, dialogue is not to be undertaken no matter when or with whom. Rabshakeh is barred from dialogue with the people of God. There is a time for speech and a time for silence, says Ecclesiastes (3:7). We shall often have occasion to meditate on this.


  1. 1 Modern scholars treat these terms as titles rather than proper names, Tartan as commander-in-chief of the army, Rabsaris as head of the eunuchs, and Rabshakeh as chief cupbearer. This is grammatically possible, but does not make much sense in the context.
  2. Perhaps one should not generalize thus and regard Rabshakeh as a representative of the world. The name, which is perhaps a proper name, means literally "chief cupbearer." But I believe it is a richer term than this. According to Davidson the root implies "to become innumerable" and carries with it the sense of power, size, and abundance, an abundance relating to what is both indispensable and ambiguous, i.e., drink, water, or wine.
  3. The text is uncertain, and there are various translations; we adopt that which seems to make the best sense.
  4. Some historians think that only Josiah carried through these reforms a century later. But even if we have here a later addition, which is by no means obvious, what counts is the significance of Rabshakeh’s speech.

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