John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 18

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 18

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Assyrian Religious Notions

Isa_36:7; Isa_36:10; Isa_36:18-20

Some curious matters in regard to the religious notions of the Assyrians transpire in the transaction before us.

Aware that the Hebrews avowedly trusted to deliverance from Jehovah their God, which to him must have appeared a reasonable trust, supposing that this God had the will and the power to deliver his people, Rabshakeh contended with them that they had incurred their God’s displeasure, and that therefore they could not expect Him to move in their behalf. This was true enough in one sense, but not in the sense the Assyrian intended. He had perhaps heard generally that the nation was under the Lord’s displeasure, and, casting about to find the cause, blunderingly ascribed it to the removal by the reigning king of the altars and high places throughout the land. He knew that these had been dedicated to Jehovah, and therefore concluded that Hezekiah had so far striven to put down His worship—little thinking that by this act he had won favor with God, and had done his best to uphold the purity and unity of the Lord’s worship. Rabshakeh’s mistake was natural enough, and is of a class of mistakes which foreigners are still apt to fall into, in passing judgment upon the imperfectly understood proceedings of a strange people.

Having thus shown, as he thought, that the Jews had no right to suppose the Lord willing to move for their deliverance, he further on asserts that he was not able to deliver them, from the fact that the deities of no other nation had been able to deliver their people from the Assyrian conquerors. “Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?” That was a home-stroke, and he knew it. But he goes on—“Who are they among all the gods of these lands, that have delivered their land out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” Here he treads on ground full of danger to the Assyrians, by daring to build his inferences upon the supposition that Jehovah was no better than the local deities—which yet were no gods—worshipped by the nations his master had overthrown. The author of the books of Chronicles puts it concisely in this shape, as the germ of blasphemy which necessitated that the Assyrians should be taught by judgments to distinguish between Jehovah and the gods of the conquered nations—“And he spoke against the God of Jerusalem, as against the gods of the people of the earth, which were the work of the hands of men.”

Not content with this, and, as he thinks, to terrify and discourage them wholly, Rabshakeh in the name of his master, has the astounding audacity to pretend, to a commission from Jehovah himself to destroy the land. “And am I now come up without the Lord against this land, to destroy it? The Lord said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.” How are we to understand this amazing declaration? Is it a gratuitous falsehood, or is it founded on some misconception, which allowed the speaker to suppose it true? Some think it possible that, by some channel or other, king Sennacherib has heard rumors of Isaiah’s earlier prophecy (Isa_10:5-6), that the Lord would send the Assyrians to punish the Hebrew people for their sins, and that Rabshak now pleads this as his authority, and to show them that resistance was hopeless. Others deem it more probable that he uses the name of Jehovah here as synonymous with that of “god,” and means to say that he had been divinely directed to come up in that expedition. All the ancient warriors usually consulted their gods, endeavored by auguries to obtain what they regarded as the divine approbation of their plans of conquest; and thus Rabshakeh may mean no more than to say that his master came up now under the divine sanction and direction. We object to this latter view; for Jehovah could only be known to him as the name of the national God of the Hebrews, and he therefore would be likely to identify Him, by that peculiar name, with his own national god whom he had consulted, and whose votaries held a destructive antagonism against other gods, which, although unusual among the ancient heathen, is recognized in this very chapter, and is evinced by the inscriptions at Nineveh. We should, of the two, prefer the former of these explanations; for we must remember that there were already numerous Jewish captives in Assyria, and that the Assyrians were already in possession of the neighboring realm, which had once belonged to the ten tribes, so that there was much opportunity of knowing what was said and done in Judah; and we may be sure there would not be wanting some who would bear to the ears of “the great king” the agreeable tiding, that the famous prophet of Judah had predicted punishment to his people through the Assyrians. This, upon the whole, seems to us more probable than the remaining conjecture, which is—that Rabshakeh uses this merely as a pretence for dismaying the minds of the people who heard him, and to whom he chose especially to address himself, in the view of alienating their minds from their sovereign, and of inducing them to surrender. He knew, it is urged, that it was one of the principles of public life among the Jews, however little they carried it out in practice, to acknowledge the authority and direction of Jehovah, and he hoped, by adducing it, to bend them to his purpose. But if he knew so much of the Jews as to be aware of this, he could not have been ignorant that the simplest of the men who stood there upon the wall, open-mouthed to catch his words, must have had sense enough to see through so shallow a pretence.

In the subsequent message which the Assyrian king sent to Hezekiah the subtle cajolery of the cunning cup-bearer is ignored; and, having heard of the trust which the king of Judah still reposed in his God, he plainly hurls that defiance against this God which alone was wanting to seal his doom. “Let not the God in whom thou trustiest deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” And then he goes on, as Rabshakeh had done, to point out the impotency of the gods of other regions to protect their votaries against him. It seems clear by this, that the king had heard of the promise of deliverance which Isaiah had been authorized to give after the intimidating address of Rabshakeh.

In laying this letter from Sennacherib before the Lord, Hezekiah acknowledges the truth of the statement which it contained as to the treatment of the heathen gods—“Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their countries, and have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the works of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they have destroyed them.”

We have said that this treatment of the gods of conquered nations was not usual among the ancients, who rather respected the idols of the conquered nations, believing them to be the real and proper gods of those nations. It is pleasant, therefore, to see this fact incidentally but very strikingly corroborated by the Nineveh inscriptions, so far as they have been translated by Colonel Rawlinson. By which it appears that the Assyrians destroyed the idols of the conquered peoples, and forced upon them the worship of their own—a species of religious propagandism by the sword, which has been usually supposed not to have been exercised in the East till the time of Mohammed.

These intimations occur in the long inscriptions on the black basaltic obelisk which, according to Colonel Rawlinson’s latest information, was set up about 860 B.C.—that is, about fifty years before the events under our notice, and, therefore, near enough to there to be of contemporary value and interest. These inscriptions recite the exploits and greatness of an Assyrian king, Note: There is some question about the name of this king. Colonel Rawlinson, in his translation of the inscription, calls him Temenbar II, son of Assar-adan-pul (which he renders into Sardanapalus); but he now reads the latter as Assar-akh-baal. Professor Grotefend suggests that the former name should be read Shalmaneser. But this would be too late to meet Colonel Rawlinson’s later view, confirmed as it is by the independent conclusions of Dr. Hincks. The point is one respecting which we must await further information. who is now held by Rawlinson to have been contemporary with Jehu, king of Israel, and the prophet Elisha. It begins with an invocation to the gods of Assyria to protect the empire: “The god Assarac, the great lord, king of all the great gods; Ani, the king, Nit, the powerful, and Artenk, the supreme god of the provinces; Beltis, the protector, mother of the gods.” Then follow fragments relating to other gods; and the favor of all these gods, with Assarac at their head, the supreme god of heaven, is invoked for the protection of Assyria. Then proceeds the record of the military expeditions of the reign, in which occur such passages as these: “And Ahuni, the son of Hateni, with his gods, and his chief priests, etc., I brought away to my country of Assyria.” “In the city of Umen, I raised altars to the great gods.” “I came to the land watered by the head-streams which form the Tigris. The priests of Assarac in that land raised altars to the immortal gods. I appointed priests to reside in the land to pay adoration to Assarac, the great and powerful god, and to preside over the national worship. The cities of this region which did not acknowledge the god Assarac, I brought under subjection.” “Then I went down to Shinar, and in the cities of Shinar, of Borsippa, and of Ketika, I erected altars and founded temples to the great gods.” “I abode in the country about the rivers which form the Euphrates, and there I set up altars to the supreme gods, and left priests in the land to superintend the worship.” “Sut-Mesitek, the king of the Arians, I put in chains, and I brought his wives and his warriors, and his gods, captive to my country at Assyria.” There is more of the same kind, showing that the Assyrians showed little respect to the gods of the nations they conquered, and endeavored, wherever they went, to establish the worship of their own idols.