Fear, Fake News…and Pie
Ready for something completely different?
This week’s Scripture lesson is unfamiliar, full of seemingly strange and difficult names. It may take a little more work to see what is going on here.
But the work will be worth it! As the story comes into focus, it seems shockingly relevant to us. This is a story about fear, fake news and trusting God anyway.
Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. 2The king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. He stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field. 3And there came out to him Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph, the recorder.
13Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 16Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, 17until 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. 18Do not let Hezekiah mislead you by saying, The Lord will save us. Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20Who among all the gods of these countries have saved their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should save Jerusalem out of my hand?’”
37When King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. 2And he sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. 3They 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. 4It may be that the Lord your God heard the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.” 5When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6Isaiah 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. 7I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’”
Feeling confused? You’re not alone. But let’s see if we can dig into this a little.
We are still in the 8th century before the birth of Christ. The Assyrian crisis—which we discussed last week—has entered its most dangerous days. The Assyrian Army—the army of King Sennacherib—has laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. It sure looks like the end is near.
(Sidebar: Here is a fun fact from Ronald E. Clements commentary in The Access Bible: The Assyrians were very proud of their campaign against the nation of Judah. In fact, they commemorated it carved wall panels decorating Sennacherib’s palace. You can see those panels today at The British Museum).
In the section beginning at 36:13, we actually hear Assyrian propaganda. Rabshakeh—emissary of the Assyrian king—stands and calls out to the people of Judah in their own language, urging surrender. I find the part about the speech being in Hebrew especially chilling. In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin says: “No enemies are more destructive than those who speak the same language as ourselves.”
He makes a couple of arguments: King Hezekiah cannot deliver you. If you surrender now, you can come out and eat and drink your fill. (The people hearing this speech are probably starving under siege conditions). Also, says Rabshakeh, Hezekiah’s alliance with the Egyptians will not save you. Your god will not save you. No nation has been spared by the mighty Assyrian army. No god has triumphed over their gods.
What makes you think your God will be any different?
(Another sidebar: I don’t have any scholarly backup on this, but Rabshakeh’s remarks in verse 16 sure sound like a parody of Micah 4:4: but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. These words appear in George Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation, which Lin Manuel Miranda set to music).
This is tough stuff –and King Hezekiah has a big reaction. Tearing his clothes, the sackcloth –these are signs of grief. Public mourning. But Hezekiah is remembered as a good and faithful king; this story reminds us why. In the hour of crisis, he grieves and then he goes to the prophet Isaiah. Once there, he pours out his bitterness and asks Isaiah to pray.
But note Isaiah’s response: DO NOT BE AFRAID.
God has got this.
Long story short, Sennacherib went home and was assassinated by his sons. Jerusalem survived the siege. Hezekiah saw the hand of God in these events.
And that is the story.
What will we do with this story?
First things first: this is a week when I really appreciate the Narrative Lectionary. This is a story that never occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary but it seems so rich for preaching, touching on themes of fear, faith and propaganda. If I don’t preach a good sermon this Sunday –well, that’s not on Isaiah.
Of course, we have some family business to which we will tend. It’s Pie Weekend –the end of our stewardship season, when we bring in our pledges cards and bring some pie to share as well. It is a time to give thanks to God for all of God’s goodness to us and commit to all that God has yet to do.
See you in church!