26 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah, and Joah, said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, 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 trust in 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 each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each 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 lands have delivered their lands 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 torn and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. – 2 Kings 18:26-37 ESV
This entire scene is filled with a sense of nervous anticipation. The people of Judah are lining the eastern walls of the city, overlooking the Kidron Valley, where the Assyrian army lies spread out before them in numbers too great to count. But their eyes are locked on the three emissaries whom King Hezekiah commissioned to discuss terms of peace with the Assyrians. Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah hold the fate of the nation in their hands. The people know that the negotiating skills of these three men will determine whether Judah stands or falls. So, all eyes are fixed on the momentous scene taking place at the base of the walls of the city.
But the Rabshakeh, or supreme commander of the Assyrian army, is not interested in peace negotiations. He has come to demand the unconditional surrender of the city and its inhabitants. He and his troops have repeatedly proven their superior power and he is confident that the city of Jerusalem will be one more domino to fall as they continue their conquest of Palestine. Speaking on behalf of his commander-in-chief, the Rabshakeh declares Hezekiah’s rebellion to be ill-conceived and ill-fated.
“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me?” – 2 Kings 18:19-20 NLT
With the citizens of Jerusalem looking on and listening in, this arrogant military commander summarily dismisses any likelihood that the Egyptians will come to the aid of the city. The last-minute military alliance that King Hezekiah made with Pharaoh will prove disappointingly insufficient. The Rabshakeh sarcastically compares Pharaoh to a cane or walking stick made from a reed. It may appear to give support, but it will shatter as soon as any weight is placed upon it.
And the overly confident Assyrian commander informs the Jewish emissaries that if they are holding out hope that Yahweh will come to their rescue, they will find themselves sorely disappointed. Their deity will join a long list of other gods who proved unsuccessful in stopping the Assyrian juggernaut. And, hoping to further undermine their faith in divine rescue, the Rabshakeh announces to the people of Judah that Yahweh had ordered their destruction.
“What’s more, do you think we have invaded your land without the Lord’s direction? The Lord himself told us, ‘Attack this land and destroy it!’” 2 Kings 18:25 NLT
Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah could sense that all this boastful rhetoric was having its intended effect. The Rabshakeh had purposefully delivered his message in Hebrew so that all the people on the wall could hear what he had to say. And they were growing increasingly more concerned. When the king’s three emissaries asked that the conversation be switched to Aramaic, the Rabshakeh refused and called out in a loud voice, “Do you think my master sent this message only to you and your master? He wants all the people to hear it, for when we put this city under siege, they will suffer along with you. They will be so hungry and thirsty that they will eat their own dung and drink their own urine” (2 Kings 18:27 NLT).
At this point, the Rabshakeh turns his attention to the people on the walls of the city. He begins to sow seeds of doubt and suspicion by raising questions concerning King Hezekiah’s intentions and trustworthiness. By addressing the people directly, the Rabshakeh hopes to foment an uprising within the walls of the city, inciting the citizens to turn on their king and demand that he spare their lives by surrendering to the Assyrians. And to help sweeten the pot, the Rabshakeh offers them tempting promises of peace and prosperity.
“Don’t listen to Hezekiah! These are the terms the king of Assyria is offering: Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well. Then I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards, olive groves and honey. Choose life instead of death!” – 2 Kings 18:31-32 NLT
Look closely at what the Assyrian king is offering the people of Judah. Essentially, this pagan king is putting himself in the place of God, promising to meet all their needs. He will supply them with ample food and drink. He will provide them with fresh water. And he will take them to “a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards, olive groves and honey.” That should sound familiar. When God had called Moses to rescue the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, He had promised to lead them to a “fertile and spacious land…a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 NLT). And after God had successfully freed them from their captivity and led them to the land of Canaan, He had reminded them again of His promise to give them “a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9 NLT).
Now, centuries later, here was the pagan king of Assyria offering to replicate what God had done for His chosen people. If they would only turn their backs on Yahweh and trust in King Sennacherib, he would provide for all their needs and take them to a new “promised land.”
Sennacherib was placing himself in the role of God, declaring himself to be the source of life and death. By placing their trust in him, they would be assured of peace, prosperity, and life. But centuries earlier, Moses had delivered a much different message to the people of Israel. As they stood on the banks of the Jordan River, preparing to enter the land of promise for the very first time, he had warned them:
“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. And if you love and obey the LORD, you will live long in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 30:19-20 NLT
Sennacherib was playing God. This over-confident king with an overactive ego was daring to place himself on equal standing with God Almighty. And he was attempting to persuade the people of Judah to abandon their hope and trust in Yahweh by offering them a “better” promised land.
But while the people on the wall were disturbed by what they heard, they obeyed King Hezekiah’s command and remained silent. And the three emissaries, their clothes torn in an act of mourning, returned to the king and reported all that they had heard. It was a dark day in Judah. The enemy was at the gate. The allies of Judah were nowhere to be found. But despite the boasts of the Rabshakeh, the God of Judah was still on His throne and in complete control of all that was happening. He alone held the power of life and death in His hands. And King Sennacherib and his overconfident military commander were about to discover the painful lesson that they were no match for the all-powerful God of Judah.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson