Commentary on Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; then 2:1-4
Sennacherib who? Our Isaiah text is full of unfamiliar names and places, so your audience will need some help figuring out who is who.
Add to that the breaks between lectionary sections, and it can be confusing all around. This story lends itself to enactment, or use of different readers for each voice. That will create continuity of these fragments. Even so, the preacher will still need to summarize the plot developments here.
In fact, I suggest you tell the story of this text, briefly in your own words, before the scripture is read to orient listeners to what they will hear. For example, “You’re going to hear a story about a very powerful foreign king who tries to scare the king of Judah and his people. In fact, this foreign king will try to talk them out of trusting God, and prove his own might with his path of destruction. The foreign king is from Assyria. The king of Judah is Hezekiah, and he will turn to the prophet Isaiah as he considers how to respond.” Then read the text.
The narrative arc since September has been a powerful one, so review: God delivers the Hebrew people, creates a covenant with them, brings them to the Promised Land, gives them prophets and kings, and establishes them as a nation. But they are a tiny nation stuck between great world powers, and frequently wonder whether other gods might be a better bet than this one.
The situation: Assyria, the superpower at the time, has destroyed everything in its path leading to Judah, including major cities, and now stands at the door of Jerusalem, threatening the same fate. Assyria already conquered Israel (Northern Kingdom), leaving Judah (Southern Kingdom) vulnerable.
When the Assyrian king wants to really terrorize the Hebrew people, he can do this with a double-punch. First, the king (through his messenger) sows seeds of doubt, both about their own leader Hezekiah, and about their God: “Don’t listen to Hezekiah. He can’t save you, and neither will his God.” Second, he will remind the Hebrews of all the other nations he has laid waste on his way to Jerusalem (like Hamath and Arpad) plus all their own cities he destroyed. If their gods couldn’t save them, what evidence is left that YHWH will save the Judeans?
This is a classic set-up between a ruthless bully and God’s faithful servant. Hezekiah doesn’t cower, or bluster. Rather, he turns to Isaiah the prophet for discernment about God’s desires in this conflict. Isaiah proclaims God’s desire that the Assyrians not prevail. And in Isaiah 2, we hear again God’s desire for the house of Jacob to “teach his ways” and “walk in his paths,” a people of peace and life for all nations (Isaiah 2:1-4).
There are many voices in the world eager to convince, “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” Fear-mongering is an extremely profitable business. Fear can motivate people to spend money on things they don’t need, to get out and vote, or to lash out at faceless “others” called immigrants or Muslims or fill in the blank. Fear can cause adults to overwork and kids to over-perform. Fear can create bonds of unity that feel really great, “us” against “them.” Tyrants have known for millennia that if you want to control people, make them afraid. Fear is the strongest motivation humans know, except for love.
Moreover, once fear-mongering colonizes our consciousness, we do the fear-mongers work for them, internalizing the voice that repeats, “Be very afraid!” Make your own list of internalized voices in your context. Fear about public schools or different races or money or jobs or marriage or kids or church. Internalized fear makes us believe that our security lies somewhere other than God.
“The world is going to hell in a handbasket” is not a Christian view of the world. It is not a witness of faith in the God who has a) delivered us from bondage b) demonstrated Divine Love in the Word made flesh and c) decreed the renewal of all things. Living unexamined lives of internalized fear, as Sennacherib so hopes the Judeans will do, is not a Christian witness. The world hungers for us to witness to “the love that casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
We can learn from this story some basic dynamics of fear and trust.
1. The Assyrian king’s messenger speaks in the language of the Hebrew people, rather than Assyrian, a strategy to intimidate people on their own terms. Such voices try to “get into our heads,” using the things or people we care about most to provoke fear.
2. The loudest voice gets our attention. In Isaiah’s story, all the people line the city wall to listen to the impressive Assyrian delegation pronounce threats. We, too, are riveted by voices crying, “be afraid!” Even when we know God is faithful, the megaphone of fear captures our attention, quickly dominates our awareness, banishing our trust in God to a distant whisper.
3. We are formed by these loud voices. Just as Hezekiah and his retinue tore their clothes and put on sackcloth, we react, too. The daily barrage from Facebook to cable news is loud. That voice becomes “the way things are,” and defines reality, denying the deep, true reality of God’s life within and among us.
4. In the midst of anxiety, a leader whose gaze is clearly focused on God can make a difference. Hezekiah warned the people ahead of time not to listen to the threats, to keep their gaze focused on the God who had delivered them rather than on these bullies, no matter how impressive their uniforms were. And he turns to Isaiah to help him keep his eye on God. So, too, we need leaders who draw our eyes back to the One who made us, who knows our going out and our coming in, who keeps us and saves us. This One has the final word, defines reality, and steeps us love that casts out fear.
5. God’s first words are: “Don’t be afraid” (Isaiah 37:6). While telling people not to be afraid does not banish all fear, it is the first step to interrupting the false narrative of intimidation. “Be not afraid” is the word of truth in the midst of lies. We must proclaim this word to one another again and again.
6. God’s mission for the world is in contrast to fear, a different frame of reference altogether (Isaiah 2: 1-4). In this frame of reference, God is at the center. Isaiah draws attention away from the gaze on military might and toward the reign of God. Jerusalem is not the beleaguered people under threat, but the center of life-giving teaching, the flourishing of life, and a source of light for all people. When our gaze shifts from a horizon of fear to a horizon of hope, trust in God grows deep roots that sustain life.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of deliverance, you promised prosperity and peace to the exiles of Jerusalem. Grant us to prosper, not for riches, but for faith, so that our lives may be a blessing to all. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Lead on, O king eternal ELW 806
Jerusalem, my happy home ELW 628
At the name of Jesus ELW 416, H82 435, UMH 168
Jerusalem, Hubert Parry