I was so afraid. Fourteen years I had been King of Judah when the crisis came. We all trembled at the name of Assyria in those days. Their armies trampled the world like giants, and left nations crushed and broken in their wake. Eight years before they had crushed Israel, and Samaria is now a city clamouring with false gods because of the foreign nations that Assyria settled there in place of the former inhabitants. I assumed that we would be spared because I earnestly sought to lead my people in godliness, and when they didn’t come near us that time we all breathed a sigh of relief and got back to our ordinary busy lives.
But this time it was different. This time they were right on our doorstep, 185,000 of them – the terrible might of Assyria, focused on us. The glorious days of David and Solomon, when we were a people mighty in exploits, have long since gone; we are a little people now, small and weak and as easily crushed as a mouse at harvest time. There was no human way we could ever defeat them. But they gave us a choice, a cruel choice, and malice dripped from their commander’s words as he offered it to us. He was a man of many words, who enjoyed spinning them out to try and get a reaction from us. He thundered and he taunted like the most skilled of verbal bullies, but the gist of his message was simple and horrible: your god will not save you. He claimed that God himself had commanded him to march against us, and the only way we could avoid total annihilation was to make peace with Assyria, and allow them to deport us to another land. That was our stark and terrible choice, my stark and terrible choice, since I, Hezekiah, descendant of David, am the king in Jerusalem, the city where God’s temple stands.
What should I choose? On the one hand lay death and destruction, as cruel and vicious as these devotees of malign deities could make it – torture, rape, terror and the murder of little children, the annihilation of the descendants of Abraham-- and, on the other, a different but equally terrible death as they took us forth and scattered us among the nations. How many of our people would stay true to the Lord in that scenario? How many of their children, let alone their children’s children, would even know that there is a God before whom all the gods of the nations are as nothing, who created the heavens and the earth by the word of his power, and calls his people into covenant with him?
I have no words for the dark fear of that hour. How can a man walk when every step leads on to death and horror? I will keep the story short, the comings and goings, the prophecies, the letters – a drama of hope and fear that no man would ever want to relive. Sennacherib mocked our God; he taunted us with the history of all those other nations who had fallen to Assyria, whose gods had failed to save them. Why should our God be any different? Why should the words of our prophets mean anything more than mouthings on empty air?
Oh Sennacherib, you trusted in your armies, your horses and your chariots! And, in the end, for all the glory and terror with which you bestrode the earth, they were useless. We were desperate, we were afraid, we had no weapons to bring to the battle except our prayers, and that was enough, and more than enough – not because we were mighty spiritual warriors, but because we prayed to a mighty God. The prophet declared that God himself would defend our city, and he did. We lay on our beds in fear through the hours of darkness, some had the faith to sleep a little and some did not, but all our fears were banished by the sunrise. We looked out upon the Assyrian camp and found a few men breaking camp and fleeing. The rest? It took us a little while to understand that eerie stillness, that preternatural quietness; it seems that however desperately we cry out to God, we are still unprepared for His actions. The camp was full of the dead – 185,000 of them! That same angel of death who once delivered us from Egypt, passing through and taking the first born, had passed in the night through the camp of the Assyrians, and once again delivered us. Faced with an impossible situation, we cried out to God and found that He is still our shield, our refuge and our very great reward. A man, a nation, may be caught between a rock and a hard place, but God can reach down from above and lift us out of the crushing darkness into the spacious liberty of his grace.