In 2 Kings 18, Judah was in deep yogurt. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians. While Hezekiah was the best king of Judah since David (vv. 3-6), and even though idolatry and contraband worship at high places had been purged from the land, and despite a past successful rebellion against Assyrian hegemony, Judah was invaded by King Sennacherib of Assyria, who successfully destroyed much of the country before besieging Jerualem (vv. 13, 17), putting his general Rabshakeh in command. Rabshakeh then commenced a propaganda campaign against the soldiers of Israel, mocking their king and their God. His speech made five points (vv. 19–35, with a reprise in 19:8–13):
- Egypt will not protect you.
- Hezekiah has offended God by tearing down His high places.
- God has sent me as judgment upon you.
- Assyria will bless you if you submit.
- Assyria has defeated all the other nations, why is your God different than theirs?
These five points were intended to tempt the men of Judah to forsake trusting in God and surrender to Assyria.
Rabshakeh’s first temptation was political in nature: Judah could not trust the nation of Egypt to defend them from Assyria. The two major powers in the region at the time were Assyria and Egypt, with Assyria having a significant upper hand. We know from 2 Kings 16:7-9 that Hezekiah’s father had made Judah an Assyrian vassal. Early in chapter 18 Hezekiah had rebelled by refusing to pay tribute (hence his later comment “I have done wrong” when he stripped the temple of its wealth to pay tribute to the Assyrians). The Assyrians would have presumed Hezekiah had made some sort of arrangement with Egypt. Rabshakeh portrayed Egypt as weak and unreliable, so that Judah was without allies against their enemies. Rabshakeh wanted to convince Judah that they were alone and could only trust in the potential mercy of Assyria for their deliverance.
Rabshakeh’s next temptation accused Hezekiah of angering God by tearing down the high places of Judah. While God had in fact condemned the high places as places of false worship, Rabshakeh hoped to confuse and distort the truth in order to convince the men of Judah that they had lost God’s favor and would be abandoned by Him. In short, Rabshakeh lies about God’s Word. He then asserted that God had told him to come fight against Judah as judgment for Hezekiah’s “sin.” These two lies asserted that Judah had been abandoned by God, that they were alone among gods and men.
Rabshakeh’s fourth lie subtly undermines God’s promises and character. The Rabshakeh promised:
Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the King of Assyria, “Make your peace with me and come out to me, and eat each of his vine and each of his fig tree and drink each of the waters of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live and not die.” But do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you, saying, “The Lord will deliver us.”
Wait, where have I heard this before? Oh right:
“Now O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. … So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time.
(Deuteronomy 4:1, 40)
You shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess.
All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers.
Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. … in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
(Deuteronomy 30:6, 16, 19, 20)
The language of blessing and giving life in reward for obedience bears striking similarity to the blessing promises of God in the Mosaic covenant! Whether consciously or not, Rabshakeh set Assyria up as an alternative covenant lord for Israel, and in doing so claimed equality with Yahweh. Rabshakeh, wittingly or not, claimed that God’s covenant with Israel was no different than a vassalization treaty with Assyria. Any Jew who had heard the Law read at the religious festivals Hezekiah had restored should have recognized this language. They knew they were being offered a choice between the blessings of Yahweh’s covenant and the blessings of Assyria’s treaty offer. The Jews had ample ability to recognize Rabshakeh’s arrogance in claiming equality of strength with Yahweh.
In his final temptation, Rabshakeh went further and claimed Assyrian superiority with Yahweh, claiming that just as the gods of other nations were unable to save their nations, why would Yahweh deliver Judah from Assyria? This pride is the pinnacle of Rabshakeh’s boasts, and prompts Hezekiah’s prayerful response and Yahweh’s miraculous deliverance later in the narrative (19:20–37).
The central theme of the passage is that God glorifies His name by defending His people against their enemies. Rabshakeh’s lies show us how God’s enemies tempt God’s people to forsake trusting in Him. As sin always involves a lack of trust in God, Rabshakeh’s speech shares some patterns with temptation in general. By way of application we can make a couple observations on temptation:
- Temptation will try to isolate you.
- Temptation will misrepresent your relationship with God.
- Temptation will offer you a substitute for God’s blessing.
Just as Rabshakeh tried to tell Judah that both Egypt and Yahweh would abandon them to destruction, so too does sin try to isolate us. Sin lies to us that we are alone, that we can’t share our struggles with other people, that we must trust in our own strength if we are to defeat it. Temptation tells us that we have not pleased God, or that we have displeased God, or that God does not really love us, or at least that He will not love us until we do something to please Him.
But I want to point far more emphasis on the final observation on temptation: temptation offers you a counterfeit of God’s blessings. Rabshakeh’s language reflected the covenant language of Deuteronomy, paralleling God’s promises of blessing for obedience. So too does temptation offer us counterfeit blessing. Temptation tells us that the short term joy of sin is worth it, better than waiting on God to bless us. Temptation tells us that we should not trust God or wait on His blessing, but should instead seize current happiness for ourselves, and it will do so by showing current blessing from sin as somehow similar to the joy we would have in God. As Rabshakeh promised Judah a fruitful land like the one God had given them, so too does false worship for our own exaltation offer spiritual experience like that of worshipping God in spirit and truth. So too does sexual lust promise a fulfillment like that of God’s gift of marriage. So then does bitterness or vengeance promise a vindication like that of God’s final punishment of sin.
God’s blessings are better than those of sin, because His power is greater than any created being’s. Accepting the counterfeit blessings of sin is a really bad idea, because God punishes sin. As the Angel of the Lord slew 185,000 in one night, so too is God much more powerful than whatever circumstances or devils may offer you their counterfeit blessings. So too does He ultimately punish those who oppose Him. He is faithful to defend His people, so it is worth waiting and trusting in Him until He ultimately does.