Isaiah 36-39: Sennacherib and Hezekiah


Isaiah 36-39 conclude the section that relates to Assyria and demonstrates that it is not necessary to trust human powers instead of God in order to survive. This section is a lived-out example of Isaiah 13-35 [1].


1) who was Sennacherib?

- he was the king of Assyria (704-681 b.c.)
- his name means "the god Sin has substituted the dead brothers" meaning he was at least the third son to be born to his father Sargon II but the first one to survive childhood [2].
- In the Bible, he invaded Judah (Isa 36:1) and Judah was involved in a rebellion against him led by Merodach-baladan of Babylonia (Isa 39).
- here is archaeological evidence for Sennacherib

2) who was Hezekiah?

- he was the king of Judah (Isa 36:2) (715-687 b.c.) not to be confused with the great-great-grandfather of the prophet Zephaniah (Zeph 1:1) or the head of a family that returned from Babylonian exile (Ezra 2:16, Neh 7:21) though some have suggested that Zephaniah's great-great-grandfather might actually be the king [3]. 
- here is archaeological evidence for Hezekiah

Oswalt says the following about Hezekiah:

"We do not know how carefully he had listened to Isaiah across the years, but the biblical record depicts a man who had, from the outset, tried to do what he believed God had wanted. So when he came to this crisis moment, there was a sense in which he was already fully committed. He had torn down the idol altars; he had reinstituted the kind of worship God had directed; he had gone so far as to try to reintegrate people from north Israel into worship at the Jerusalem temple. He had tried to clean up the priesthood (cf. 2 Kings 18:2–8; 2 Chron. 29:1–31:21). As he testifies in Isaiah 38:3, he had lived for God with “wholehearted devotion.”[8]

3) was Sennacherib's invasion prophesied?

Yes. In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz of Judah finds out that Syria and King Pekah of Israel tried to conquer Jerusalem but failed (Isa 7:1). In response, the LORD tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz to not be afraid (Isa 7:4) and that Ahaz should ask for a confirming sign from the LORD (Isa 7:11). Ahaz refuses (Isa 7:12) so judgement is prophesied against him that the King of Assyria would attack (Isa 7:17). Assyria's attack is prophesied again in Isa 8:7-8 and also in Isa 1:7-8.


Sennacherib Invades Judah (Isaiah 36:1-37:37)

Isa 36:1-3: Assyria meets with Israel at Jerusalem

Isa 36:1 This section begins with King Sennacherib capturing all the fortified cities of Judah.

Isa 36:2-3 He then sends his chief advisor accompanied by a large army to Jerusalem to King Hezekiah. The chief advisor stands at the conduit of the upper pool where they do the laundry and a few of King Hezekiah's staff meets him there. Sending ambassadors was common and sending them was considered to be equivalent to the King himself going. This happens in Plutarch's Lives and in other places in the Bible. The place where the two nations meet is significant because this is the place where Isaiah met Ahaz surveying his defenses and foretold the Assyrian invasion. Now Assyrian representatives are standing on the same spot. The Assyrians may have chosen this location to serve a symbolic purpose since water is so important in a siege [1]. 

Isa 36:4-10: Assyria Taunts God

The arguments Assyria makes are demoralizing -- not rational [1]. 

Isa 36:4-6 The chief advisor taunts Hezekiah (Isa 36:4) by saying he is all talk and mocking his ties with Egypt saying the Pharaoh is essentially a back-stabber (Isa 36:6) -- or in this case a hand-stabber. 

Isa 36:7 The chief advisor then essentially calls Hezekiah a hypocrite for saying he is trusting in the LORD but then removing all the altars except for one. The altars he is referring to at the "high places" are actually altars to false gods that were removed by him but Assyria doesn't acknowledge that (2 Kin. 18:4; 2 Chr. 31:1) [4].

Isa 36:8 Sennacherib then mockingly offers to meet Hezekiah half-way in a surrender deal by offering 2,000 horses if he could provide riders. Cavalry was the newest military innovation back then. Judah never had the wealth nor power to assemble chariots and wouldn't even be able to put trained riders on horses if they were given to them [1].

Isa 36:9 He then implies that refusing the offer and trusting in Egypt would be foolish. 

Isa 36:10 After all, it was the command of the LORD to destroy Judah according to Sennacherib. It was not unusual for a conquerer to claim that his conquest was made possible because the god of the conquered had joined the conquerer [1]. However, we also know that Isaiah prophesied that God would use the Assyrians to punish his people (Isa 8:7-8). We don't know if the Assyrians knew this but we know that the Judeans did and they were probably terrified to see this prophesy appear to become fulfilled. Note that the prophesy indicates that the Assyrians would come close to destroying Judea but not destroy it completely (up to the neck).

Isa 36:11-21: Assyria Threatens Israel

Isa 36:11 Jerusalem then makes an interesting request that Sennacherib's advisors speak in Aramaic instead of Judahite dialect. This implies that the claim that Assyria was acting at God's command was so upsetting (Isa 36:10) that Judea wanted to continue "negotiations" in Aramaic which was the diplomatic language at that time. The Assyrians didn't really come to negotiate though -- they came to demoralize and terrorize Jerusalem and destroy their will to resist [1]. 

Isa 36:12 Sennacherib's chief advisor responds by threatening Hezekiah's ambassadors with famine (probably from a siege if they choose to resist) and extending the threat to the people on the wall. The people on the wall are probably common people who showed up to see what was going on [1].

Isa 36:13-15 Sennacherib's chief advisor then directly addresses the people on the wall in the Judahite dialect telling them not to let Hezekiah talk them into trusting in the LORD. 

Isa 36:16-17 Then Sennacherib's chief advisor tells them to send a token of their submission and surrender and that they will basically be left alone (Isa 36:16) and taken to their own land with similar perks to Jerusalem in terms of grain and wine (Isa 36:17).  

Isa 36:18-20 He then doubles-down on his attack on the idea that the LORD will rescue them by comparing Him to other gods and pointing out how those gods have failed. We already know from the last few weeks studying idolatry what the LORD would say in response to this: there is no other god comparable to Him. 

Isa 36:21 Interestingly, the people on the wall and/or Hezekiah's representatives did not respond because Hezekiah ordered them not to. It could be that Hezekiah didn't want them to negotiate with the Assyrians in any way.

Isa 36:22-37:7 Hezekiah appeals to the LORD through Isaiah

Isa 36:22-23 Hezekiah's advisors were so upset by what Sennacherib delivered to them that they tore their clothes (Isa 36:22). Here is more information about tearing clothes.

Isa 37:1  Hezekiah became very upset when he heard the news and tore his clothes as well. Hezekiah's response following that was appropriate in that he went to the LORD's temple. We would do well to first go to the LORD in prayer when we face trials as well (2 Chron 7:14, Eph 6:18, Jeremiah 29:12, James 5:13) and relying on the LORD is a lesson that has been reiterated up to this point in Isaiah. 

Isa 37:2-3 Hezekiah sends a dramatic and poetic message to Isaiah admitting that they do not have the strength to do it themselves and that their failure would kill them (Isa 37:3). 

Isa 37:4 Hezekiah's chief reasoning about God answering his prayer is that God will defend His reputation and punish Sennacherib. This is significant because the fact that Hezekiah cares mostly about the LORD's honor is a testimony to Hezekiah's heart. Hezekiah had not led the nation to trust God yet his heart is soft to have done this and the LORD hears him (Mat 23:12, Luke 18:9-14).

Isa 37:5-7 Isaiah then prophesies that the LORD will take control of Sennacherib's mind and send him back home where he will die --specifically that he will die by a sword in his own land (Isa 37:7). This is soon fulfilled.  

Isa 37:8-13: Assyria Taunts God Again

Isa 37:8-9 The chief advisor of Assyria then goes to meet his king in Libnah where the king was going to meet the King of Ethiopia in battle where he heard he was marching out to fight him. 

Isa 37:10-13 King Sennacherib then sends a message to King Hezekiah telling him not to let God mislead him by saying that Jerusalem will not be handed over to the King of Assyria. The reason Assyria gives is because of their reputation for defeating their enemies (Isa 37:10). 

Isa 37:14-20: Hezekiah Prays to the LORD

Isa 37:14-20 Hezekiah then prays to the LORD acknowledging His power and sovereignty. Once again, it is interesting that Hezekiah does not defend the LORD's reputation to Sennacherib but rather states the LORD's defense to the LORD. Keep the following question in-mind which we will address at the end of the discussion: How do we know in our own lives when to defend the LORD to our enemies and when to tell the LORD that we acknowledge His reputation (i.e. worship Him)?

Isa 37:21-35: The LORD responds

Isa 37:21-29 The LORD's response is He defends His reputation and pronounces judgement on the Assyrians that their plans will be thwarted and they will turn-tail. A fine line for us to consider is the difference between us defending the LORD's reputation and the LORD Himself defending it. When we appeal to Scripture, we are acknowledging God's authority and His ability to defend His reputation. Jesus does this when He is tempted in the wilderness (Mat 4:1-11) and Jude mentions the angel Gabriel saying "the LORD rebuke you" to the devil -- not rebuking him directly by his own authority (Jude 1:9). You can read more about that verse here. In our weakness the LORD is strong. He is our Creator and Redeemer and when we stand aside and make it less about ourselves and more about Him, He is most glorified (John 3:30, 2 Cor 12:9-10, Phil 1:20-21, Mark 8:34, Rev 4:11). The LORD will also leave no sin unpunished if that sin is not paid for by the blood of Jesus for God is just (Rom 12:19). For more information on the extent of the payment of Jesus's blood, visit this link (Titus 2:13-14, Acts 13:39, 1 John 1:9). 

Isa 37:30 The LORD then provides a reminder to Jerusalem after His deliverance that He has spoken the truth. Oswalt explains this as follows:

"The deliverance would not come in time for the fall planting to be done, meaning that only what came up from the roots of previous plants would be available during the next year. But by the following fall, when the third calendar year was beginning, normal life could resume, for the Assyrians would be gone. Overall, this seems to be the most satisfying solution." [1]

Isa 37:31-32 The agricultural prediction is extended metaphorically to Judah and Jerusalem. They would cover the land once again (Isa 1:9, Isa 4:2). Oswalt quotes Young as follows:

"As Young aptly says, the temporary restoration promised here in ch. 37 is a sort of down payment upon that full and final restoration made possible through Christ. Were it not for God’s passionate, yet wholly undeserved, attachment to his world, none of this would be possible. He would have long since abandoned us to our sins and transgressions (1:9)."[1]

Isa 37:31-35 The LORD then makes a pronouncement that Assyria will not harm Jerusalem for the sake of His reputation and because of His promise to David. Macarthur says the following:

"God pledged to perpetuate David’s line on his throne (2 Sam. 7:16; Isa 9:6, 7; Isa 11:1; Isa 55:3)." [4]

Isa 37:36-38: The LORD judges Assyria

Isa 37:36 The LORD then carries out His judgement very dramatically by sending an angel (or messenger) to kill 185,000 of the Assyrian troops in the camp. 

Isa 37:37 Then, just as the LORD said, King Sennacherib broke camp and went his way (turned tail and went). 

Isa 37:38 Sennacherib, now back home, is killed by his sons by a sword just as the LORD prophesied through Isaiah. It might seem from these verses that Sennacherib died shortly after threatening Judah but it actually occurred 20 years later in 681. Oswalt has the following to say about this:

"When Hezekiah prayed to his God, he was delivered, both from enemies and from sickness. When Sennacherib prayed to his god, not only was he not delivered, but his sons who, in God’s economy, were expected to honor their father, slaughtered him. Like his father Sargon before him, Sennacherib was to prove that great pretensions are no security against final ignominy. In fact, according to Jesus, they are the surest way to reach that undesired goal (Luke 12:20)."[1]


1) In Isaiah 36:4-10, Assyria's speech is not logically developed. It is mostly piecemeal with intimidation and scoffing. When you are speaking with someone and they talk about God like this, how do you, or should you, respond? How do we know they are actually scoffers?

If you correct a scoffer you will get abuse (Proverbs 9:7) 

Matthew 7:6 talks about casting pearls before swine. This comes right after verses on judging (Matthew 7:1-5). France offers a reasonable analysis and remedy to how we should interpret this verse in light of the previous five:

"So understood, this saying serves to counterbalance the prohibition of one-sided criticism in vv. 1–5: there may nonetheless be times and situations when a responsible assessment of the likely response requires the disciple’s instinctive generosity to be limited, so that holy things are not brought into contempt. The disciples’ response to those hostile to their mission (Matthew 10:14) is a possible example (and cf. Paul’s policy in Acts 13:46; 18:6; 19:9). It is a principle which can easily be abused through an inappropriate use of the labels “dog” and “pig,” but we can all think of situations where it might apply, and where a totally “unjudging” attitude would be a recipe for disaster. Keener, 244, rightly points out that while one should not “prejudge who may receive one’s message,” neither should one try to “force it on those who show no inclination to accept it.” [5]

(NOTE: if you want to learn more about R.T. France, you can see some opinions on him here. He seems mostly solid.)

Here is what Morris says about Matthew 7:6:

"Disciples are not to be judgmental, but that does not mean that they are to lack discernment. They must recognize the realities of life. Cf. Davies and Allison: “The gospel of the kingdom—in Matthew 13:45–6 the kingdom is a pearl—was to be preached to all; but its heralds were also instructed to shake the dust off their feet when they were not received into a house or town (Matthew 10:14).” We must bear in mind that some hear the gospel only to rebel. Disciples are not called on to keep offering it to those who continue to reject it with vicious contempt.25 Jesus taught all sorts of people generously, but before Herod he refused to say a word (Luke 23:9). Paul preached to the Jews in Corinth for a time, but in face of persistent rejection and hostility he turned away (Acts 18:5–7; cf. 1 Cor. 2:14–15; Tit. 3:10–11)."[6]

Hagner says the following about Matthew 7:6:

"The mission to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom is an urgent one, and at least by the end of Matthew it is a universal one (28:19; cf. 24:14). In this mission everything depends on the receptivity of those who hear the message. Although it cannot be known in advance what the response will be, when the disciples encounter resistance or hostility they are not to persist, but as emphasized in 10:13–14, they are to proceed on their way in order to reach others with the message. The issue here thus focuses on the lack of receptivity rather than on any intrinsic unworthiness of any individuals or group."[7]

I think the answer to how we should respond to scoffers is to be slow to judge but to use right judgement. Sometimes someone might seem like they would not respond well to the Gospel but then surprise you later. Ray Comfort's strategy is to use the law as a schoolmaster (Gal 3:24) to show people their sin and then give them the good news of the Gospel. If they just have a scoffing attitude the whole time he might refrain from giving them the Gospel and just leave them with the Law.

(starting at position 0:41):

Here are some additional resources and examples:

2) In Isaiah 36:22-37:7 and Isaiah 37:14-20, Hezekiah was spiritually prepared so that when Assyria threatened him and blasphemed God, his response was to go to the LORD in prayer. Can you think of a time in your life when you WERE spiritually prepared and a time when you WERE NOT spiritually prepared? How did you react then and how do you think you would react now?

Oswalt gives the following example and advice:

"As a seminary professor I have seen my students living this way again and again. They pull into town with everything they own in a rented trailer, with no job, no place to live, nothing but the conviction that this is where God wants them. We faculty sometimes shake our heads and say, “Here is another crazy couple”; yet again and again I have seen God provide for people like that in unusual ways. When they finish their seminary career, they know that God can be trusted; they have seen him in action. The rest of us who plan so carefully and provide for ourselves so fully have never put God to the test; he has never had to demonstrate his special trustworthiness to us. So when the day comes that we are faced with a taunting Assyrian, we may have a much greater leap of faith to trust God than the person who put himself or herself at risk for God long before. Oswald Chambers says it this way:

  Trust entirely in God, and when He brings you to the venture, see that you take it. We act like pagans in a crisis, only one out of a crowd is daring enough to bank his faith in the character of God." [8]

3) When Hezekiah prays to the LORD in Isaiah 37:4, his chief reasoning about God answering his prayer is that God will defend His reputation and punish Sennacherib. Can you think of a time in your life when you prayed for the LORD to be glorified? Can you think of a time when you prayed selfishly or ritualistically? 

Oswalt says the following on pages 421-422 [8]:

Prayer versus ritual manipulation. Pagan ways of thinking have an insidious way of slipping into our practices without our being aware of it. Perhaps this is so because even in our highest spiritual achievements, we remain the fallen children of Adam and Eve. I do not want to suggest that economic theory is inherently evil, but there is something slightly perverse about our constant wish to get the greatest return for the smallest outlay. We do not easily or naturally ask, “Where can I make the greatest contribution?” Instead it is, “Where can I get the biggest return with the least input from me?”

This is what drives the gambling instinct, and this is what drives pagan thought. Pagan thought says, “I know what my needs are, and I must find the means to supply those needs at the least cost to myself.” Biblical thought says, “Your transcendent Creator-Father knows what your needs are and wants to supply them out of his bounty. In order to receive that supply, give yourself away to him without reservation.” Our answer is the same as Adam and Eve’s, and as the man who was given one talent said (Matt. 25:25): “We’re afraid of you.” The price God asks seems too high. Maybe he will take our all and give nothing back. So the pagan option looks good. We will find ways to manipulate God and make him give us what we want/need while keeping ourselves for ourselves.

When we begin to do this, much of our religious life begins to change its complexion. We go to church, we read the Bible, we tithe, we pray, we reject sin—all as a means of manipulating God. Slowly but surely these behaviors begin to take on the shape of idolatry. The physical acts become the spiritual reality. Current bestsellers on prayer have this real potential. We are encouraged to repeat a specific biblical prayer over and over, using the precise words of the biblical text, with the promise that in so doing we will receive the blessings of God. It may not be the intention of the authors of these books, but quickly humans see such a prayer as a mechanical device whose purpose is to get the maximum out of God with the minimum of an investment of themselves.

The Hebrew prophets destroy such an idea. Again and again they weigh in against it. Isaiah has already done so in the first chapter and will do so again in Isaiah 58. Unlike pagan religious activity, biblical rites have no efficacy in and of themselves. They are symbols of interpersonal relationships between God and the worshiper. Jesus makes this point when he says we are not to pray like pagans who believe that they will be heard because they repeat a rote formula (Matt. 6:7).

Another illustration can be found in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. One man’s prayer was heard and the other’s was not, and the hearing and not hearing were dependent on the attitude of the person’s heart (Luke 18:14–19). One of the reasons the prophets so often call for activity on behalf of the poor as the sign of true religion is because it is hard to turn this into a manipulative activity. It requires too much investment with too little evident return.


1. Oswalt, J. N. (1986). The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
2. Grayson, A. K. (1992). Sennacherib (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 1088). New York: Doubleday.
3. Herion, G. A. (1992). Hezekiah (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3, p. 189). New York: Doubleday.
4. MacArthur, J., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.). Nashville, TN: Word Pub..
5. France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
6. Morris, L. (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.
7. Hagner, D. A. (1993). Matthew 1–13 (Vol. 33A, p. 172). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
8. Oswalt, J. N. (2003). Isaiah. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.