Notes on Prayer: Isaiah 37:15-20

Isaiah 37:15-20

Isaiah 37:15-20 records the prayer of Hezekiah, king of Judah, in response to the Assyrian invasion that took place (under Sennacherib) in 701 B.C. Nearly all of the Judean kingdom fell to Assyria (46 cities and towns are mentioned by Sennacherib in the Assyrian annals), a fact confirmed very much by the context of chapters 36-37 (discussed in the recent Saturday Series studies); cf. especially the notices in 36:1f, 19; 37:11-13, and here in the prayer (v. 18f). There is a parallel version of chapters 36-39 in 2 Kings 18:13-20:19, which raises the strong possibility that both accounts derive from a common (literary) source. The parallel version of Hezekiah’s prayer is in 2 Kings 19:15-19; there are number of variants between the two versions, most of which are quite minor.

Hezekiah’s prayer is a request for deliverance from military attack and destruction (including the horrors of siege warfare), and yet, it is worth noting that the actual petition for deliverance occurs only at the very end of the prayer (v. 20). The rest of the prayer is focused on God (YHWH), and the honor that belongs to Him. This raises an important point, regarding prayer, that is often ignored or neglected by the general populace (including many Christians) today. The tendency is to move immediately to the particular need or concern a person has, without spending any time addressing God with the honor and respect that is due to Him. Such a tendency runs against Jesus’ express instructions in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:8-13 par), where the petitions regarding personal and communal needs are only made after those which focus on God, His person and His kingdom.

The prayer of Hezekiah needs to be understood within the overall context of chapters 36-37. The threat to Jerusalem is established in 36:1, followed by the taunt-discourse of the Rabshakeh (a high Assyrian official serving in a diplomatic capacity) in vv. 4-20 (cf. the recent Saturday Series study). This discourse introduces a number of themes that are central to the prophetic message in the book of Isaiah. Especially significant is the issue of placing one’s trust in God, in the face of overwhelming danger, rather than relying on other means. The choice is between a political solution—viz., an alliance with Egypt, peace negotiations with Assyria—and trusting on YHWH alone for deliverance.

The message of the Rabshakeh is essentially repeated (in summary form) in 37:10-13, and this second message is properly what Hezekiah is responding to in vv. 14ff. Having received the message, warning of horrific destruction if Jerusalem does not surrender, Hezekiah, it is said, “went up (to) the house of YHWH” (that is, the Temple complex) and spread out the scroll containing the message before YHWH. In so doing, he effectively presented the danger—but, more importantly, the oppressive wickedness of the Assyrians—before God. This is the setting for his petition and the prayer that follows.

Verse 15

“And YHWH-is-(my)-strength made a petition [i.e., prayer] to YHWH, saying…”

I have fully translated the name „izqîy¹hû (WhY`q!z+j!) rather than transliterating it in English (i.e. Hezekiah). Not that this is so important for an understanding of the prayer per se, but simply as a reminder of how the idea of faithfulness and devotion to YHWH was woven into Israelite society during the kingdom period; many names were YHWH-sentence/phrase names. We are not accustomed to names like this in Western society, and they may seem strange to our ears, but the people of the time would immediately have heard and understood their meaning. It is a kind of distortion of the text of Scripture when we transliterate such  names. The idea of trust in YHWH, so essential to the message and theme of the passage, is built into the very name of Hezekiah, filling the role (at least in the book of Isaiah) as the faithful ruler who represents the remnant of people that are to be saved.

Verse 16

“YHWH of (the heavenly) armies, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of Yisrael, (the One) sitting (upon) the Kerubs—you (are) He, (the) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God], you apart (from all others), for all (the) kingdoms of the earth! (It is) you (who) made the heavens and the earth.”

The prayer begins both with praise to YHWH and with a confession of belief in Him as the one true God and Creator, Sovereign ruler over all the world. His power and rule over all the “kingdoms of the earth” implicitly establishes a contrast between YHWH as King and the wicked tyrant Sennacherib; this contrast is brought out more clearly in the Isaian oracle and taunt (parallel to the Rabshakeh’s taunt) that follows in vv. 21-35.

That YHWH is to be identified as the Creator is clear from the very use of the ancient expression “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy), which is presumably based on the idea of El-Yahweh as the one who brought the heavens (and the heavenly/divine beings) into existence; He rules them and has control over them, and they act/fight on His command. For more on the meaning and background of the tetragrammation-name hwhy (YHWH/Yahweh), cf. my earlier article and the recent notes on Exodus 3:13-15. It is also stated here quite clearly that YHWH is the One who “made the heavens and the earth” (cf. the same of the Creator °E~l in Genesis 14:19, etc).

The rule of YHWH as King is symbolized by His ‘throne’ in the Temple sanctuary, flanked as it is by fabulous winged beings (Kerubs, the precise meaning of bWrK= remains uncertain), in a manner typical of kings’ thrones in the ancient Near East (including the Assyrian empire). The might of YHWH extends over all the (human) kingdoms of earth; He truly is the “Mightiest One”, an expression which is a relatively literal rendering of the intensive (or comprehensive) plural <yh!ýa$ (°Elohim, i.e. “God”).

By this point of time in the Prophetic tradition (7th century B.C.), Israelite monotheism had moved strongly in the direction of absolute monotheism—i.e., no other gods exist. While not stately clearly or definitively here, the idea is certainly expressed that YHWH is God “apart from” (db^l=) all others (cf. below).

Verse 17

“Stretch (out) your ear(s), YHWH, and hear; open your eyes, YHWH, and see! See and hear all (the) words of Sennacherib, which he sent to defame (you the) Mightiest, (the) Living (One)!”

Hezekiah calls on YHWH to see and hear what is going on in the current crisis. However, the focus still is not on the immediate need for rescue/deliverance; rather, his appeal is for YHWH to avenge His own honor. The reference, of course, is to the Assyrian message in vv. 10-13, but also (in context) to the taunt-speech of the Rabshakeh earlier in 36:4-20. The purpose of that message was practical—an attempt to gain a peaceful surrender of Jerusalem—but the ultimate effect, in terms of the Prophet tradition, was to insult (i.e. blaspheme) YHWH, the one true God. I have rendered the verb [r^j* as “defame” —that is, to cast blame or reproach upon a person undeservedly.

As I discussed previously, the first half of the Rabshakeh’s message (vv. 4-10) largely echoes the judgment-oracles of the prophets (including Isaiah) against the kingdoms of Israel/Judah, in the sense that the Assyrian conquests are part of God’s decreed judgment, and no attempt to avert it (through diplomatic means, etc) will succeed. It is in the second part of the taunt (vv. 12-20), however, that the message becomes truly insulting to God, suggesting that it is foolish to trust in YHWH, that He cannot protect Jerusalem from destruction, and that there is no possibility for the city to be saved. It is this that Hezekiah presents before YHWH (in the parallel/summary version of 37:10-13), and he calls on God to act in defense of His honor, preserving His name in the face of the tyrant’s boasts. The Isaian taunt-oracle in vv. 21-29 effectively gives YHWH’s answer to Sennacherib.

Verse 18

“Surely, YHWH, (the) kings of Aššur [i.e. Assyria] have made desolate all the (place)s on earth and their lands”

Hezekiah admits the military might of the Assyrians, and their conquests—how they have “made desolate” (vb br@j*) the lands of the surrounding territories. There is almost certainly a bit of wordplay here between the root brj I and that of brj II (meaning “kill/slay [with the sword]”). There is also a dual use of the noun Jr#a# (“earth, land”) which is almost impossible to render effectively in English. A consistent translation would be “…all the lands and their lands”, which sounds quite silly; as an alternative, I make use of the two main denotations of the noun (“earth” and “land”) with the rendering “…all the (place)s on earth and their lands“.

Verse 19

“and have given their ‘mighty (one)s’ in(to) the fire—for they were no (true) Mighty (One)s, but (instead) a piece of work of (the) hands of man, (made of) wood and stone, and (so) they destroyed them.”

Hezekiah also admits the Assyrian boast that the gods of the surrounding nations were unable to protect them from conquest. This is true since, from the Israelite monotheistic (and Prophetic) standpoint, those deities are not true gods at all—that is, they do not exist. This premise is expressed in the standard polemic of the prophetic writings, to the effect that the “gods” of the surrounding nations can be reduced to nothing more than the images used to represent them. Such a caricature of polytheistic religion may not accurately represent what those peoples actually believed, but it demonstrates the essential reality of their religion when compared with the truth of YHWH as the only living God (v. 17). The polemic against idolatry is strongly rooted in the Deuteronomic line of tradition (cf. Deut 4:28; 28:36, 64; 29:16-17), but it is also found in the Isaian oracles (e.g., 2:8; 17:8), becoming even more prominent in the so-called Deutero-Isaian poems (40:18-20; 41:6-7, 21-24, 28-29; 44:6-8, 9-20; 45:16-17).

Verse 20

“And now, YHWH, our Mightiest (One), bring us salvation from his hand, and (then) all (the) kingdoms of the earth will know that you, YHWH (are the One)—you apart (from all others)!”

It is only at the very end of the prayer that Hezekiah actually makes his petition for the city to be rescued from the king of Assyria. Even here, however, this request is couched in the continued appeal for YHWH to defend His own honor. By turning back the Assyrian attack, all of the nations will realize that the God of Israel is the true God, unlike the false (non-existent) idol-deities who could not save their cities and territories from destruction. The exclusivity of YHWH as the only (true) God is affirmed here by a repetition (in abbreviated form) of the wording in verse 16 (cf. above). YHWH is God “apart from” (db^l=) all others.

The effectiveness of Hezekiah’s prayer is indicated by the answer that God gives to it, through the prophet Isaiah, in verses 21ff. This will be discussed further in the upcoming Saturday Series study.


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