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19th February, 2010

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That up with which He will not put

The day of the Lord rumbled across the ancient landscape for almost two hundred years; when it finally ground to a halt after the sack of Babylon by the Medo-Persians in 539 B.C., the geopolitical map had changed forever. Gone forever were the two centers of power - Egypt and Mesopotamia - that had ruled the roost for millennia.

These facts are well-known to historians; much less known are other outcomes. For starters, the tyranny of human wickedness was temporarily but mightily stayed. The murderous brutality of Assyrian rule and the sensuous excesses of Egyptian decadence gave way to a juster, kinder, more disciplined regimen. Whereas the Assyrians had mercilessly slaughtered and deported their enemies, the Persians encouraged Assyria's victims to return to their former lands. They even had a foundational law which prevented capricious government; once a new law had been signed into effect, it could not be immediately changed (Dan. 6:8).

But best of all, the Holy One of Jacob was, for a time, exalted in the eyes of all peoples. The story of how God gained Himself a name and glory during this period (augmenting the fame He already had - Jer. 32:20), and how the lifeless gods of the nations were exposed as man-made fictions, deserves a book (it's in preparation). Special insights are provided in the book of Daniel (4:34-35, 6:26-27), but they represent only a part of a rich and complex whole. Consider for a moment an outstanding episode which not only played a critical role in this amazing transformation of human thought but also gives a profound insight into the mind of God.

For some centuries, the Assyrians had dominated most of what we now know as the Middle East, modern Iraq being their stronghold. For a long time, their power was so great that one of its most famous kings, Sennacherib (704-681), could boast that,

My hand has found like a nest the riches of the people, and as one gathers eggs that are left, I have gathered all the earth; and there was no one who moved his wing, nor opened his mouth with even a peep (Is. 10:14).

Ever taken an egg out from under a roosting chicken? No problem, no complaints, no resistance. So it was for Assyria. Her cruelty is legendary; any city or state that refused to surrender when the Assyrians knocked at the door could expect no quarter whatever. Captured leaders were skinned alive while others were impaled; the slaughter was almost inconceivable, while those who were spared were uprooted and deported. Small wonder they were singled out for some tough love from God (Is. 10:25-27). But - and here is the remarkable insight into God's thinking - Scripture shows that God's intense anger against Sennacherib was motivated by a different concern:

I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks. For he says:

"By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am prudent; also I have removed the boundaries of the people, and have robbed their treasuries; so I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man." Shall the ax boast itself against him who chops with it? Or shall the saw exalt itself against him who saws with it? As if a rod could wield itself against those who lift it up, or as if a staff could lift up, as if it were not wood! Therefore the Lord. will send leanness among his fat ones; and under his glory He will kindle a burning like the burning of a fire (Is. 10:12-17).

John Watts makes a remarkable comment about this passage:

It is not the violence or the destruction to which protest is directed. It is only that he claims full credit, putting himself in the place of God.1

Sennacherib ascribed his success to his own brilliance, whereas the truth is that God had appointed Sennacherib to serve as the divine agent of judgment upon other nations (Is. 37:26-27), including God's own people, Israel and Judah. The story is filled out in Isaiah 36-37 as well as in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. After using Sennacherib's father and grandfather to completely subdue the northern kingdom of Israel and deport its people in 721 B.C., God allowed Sennacherib to invade Judah and capture most of its cities with terrible slaughter in 701 B.C. Finally, the Assyrian army lay siege to Jerusalem. Sennacherib compounded his error by instructing his generals to boast,

Has any of the gods of the nations at all delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria?(2 Kings 18:33).

Not wise. God's response was swift and history-changing:

And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses - all dead (2 Kings 19:35).

Most historians reject this account as "wishful thinking".2 It's their rejection that is wishful. Though this catastrophe did not bring the Assyria Empire to an immediate end, it unquestionably weakened it fatally, preparing it for its final demise at the hands of the Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C. Did God get any glory?

Thus the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all others, and guided them on every side. And many brought gifts to the Lord at Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations thereafter (2 Chron 32:22-23).

All ye budding tyrants take note. To oppress your fellow man would be asking for trouble. But taking credit that is rightfully God's is something up with which He will not put.

1Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33, p. 150

2Anton Gill, Gateway of the Gods: The Rise and Fall of Babylon, p. 81


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