Formations 09.28.2014: United Kingdom Remains United

2 Kings 20:12-21

af24_1_092814_smIn a referendum earlier this month, Scotland rejected a bid by nationalists to break away from the United Kingdom. (The UK is made up of four distinct yet interrelated countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.) Despite their complaints about the central government in London, fifty-five percent of Scots felt it better not to become independent. In the end, they opted to stay with the “devil they knew” rather than take a chance on the unknown quantity of an independent Scotland.

Leading up to the historic vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron spent much of early September campaigning in Scotland, trying to convince them to vote “No.”

Just two years ago, Cameron signed the Edinburgh agreement that set in motion the September 18 referendum. At the time, the conventional wisdom said there was no chance the nationalists would prevail. That changed in recent weeks, however. Two weeks before the referendum, a shock poll showed the “Yes” camp in the lead for the first time. Realizing there was a real chance the referendum would succeed, Cameron and other leaders of his Conservative Party made an emergency visit to Scotland to run a last-minute campaign against independence.

All leaders risk becoming so assured of their position that they can’t imagine a change in the status quo. David Cameron realized this in time to make a necessary course correction. In today’s lesson, we see Hezekiah failing to learn this lesson.

Hezekiah was visited by Babylonian messengers who perhaps wanted to enlist Judahite support in opposing the Assyrians. The king showed them all his country’s riches. It may not have entered his mind that Babylonia might one day be an enemy rather than a potential ally. The conventional wisdom was solidly on the side of Assyria’s continued dominance.

Only too late did Hezekiah realize this display of wealth was ill-advised. The prophet Isaiah warned the king that the time was coming when Babylonia would be Judah’s greatest threat. Through his pride and complacency, Hezekiah set the stage for Judah’s eventual downfall.

Dennis Lynch, “Scotland Referendum: David Cameron Feeling the Heat as Vote Nears,” International Business Times, 15 September 2014

Patrick Wintour, “Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to Make Emergency Visit to Scotland,” The Guardian, 9 September 2014


• Is it sufficient to know that things will turn out all right in the short term even if trouble is coming in the long term?
• How are believers today guilty of the same sorts of lapses of judgment that Hezekiah displayed?

Reference Shelf

The Fall of Assyria and the Rise of Babylon

Esharhaddon (680–669 B.C.E ) succeeded Sennacherib. He rebuilt Babylon, and thereby gained the loyalty of its inhabitants. He also invaded Egypt because of continued revolts instigated in Palestine. Esarhaddon made vassal treaties with many of his subject nations. Copies of one such treaty have been recovered, treaties intended to assure his plans for succession to the throne would be successful. His plan was for one son Ashurbanipal to succeed him as king of Assyria. Another son would serve as a subordinate king/ruler of Babylon. This plan seems to have worked for about fourteen years. Esarhaddon’s annals mention Manasseh, king of Judah, among the vassals paying tribute.

Ashurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.) did succeed his father. He is noted as a builder and scholar as well as military leader. He extended the empire to its greatest size. During his reign Egypt was brought under Assynan control. Thebes, the capital of Egypt, was captured and sacked in 663 B.C.E. However, the Assyrian empire was rapidly weakening at this time. Much pressure was being exerted from northern invaders on Assyna. Furthermore, there was internal revolution as Ashurbanipal’s brother, ruler of Babylon rebelled. Although Ashurbanipal defeated his brother and subdued Babylon by 648 B.C.E., Egypt was able to reassert independence at this time. War with Media continued another nine years. Little information is available on the last years of Ashurbanipal’s reign. It is probable that the Assyrian empire was faced with continued turmoil and internal division.

After Ashurbanipal’s death, the Assyrian empire collapsed rapidly. It was during this period of obvious Assyrian weakness that Josiah, king of Judah, enlarged his borders to include parts of Samaria, and perhaps parts of Gilead and Galilee. In 626 B.C.E, Nabopolassar took the throne of Babylon. After gaining Babylonian independence from Assyria, he then led a coalition of forces against Assyria. In 614 B.C.E., Asshur fell to forces of Babylon, Media, and the Scythians. This was followed in 612 B.C.E. by the fall of Nineveh. Although a remnant of the army survived and moved to Haran in north Mesopotamia, the Assyrian empire was at an end. This remaining army was defeated in 605 B.C.E. in the battle of Carchemish.

Joel F. Drinkard, “Assyria,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 72–73.

An Oracle of Termination

After the remarkable affirmation of vv. 4-11, we are scarcely pre- pared for the severe oracle that follows next. Whereas vv. 1-11 concerned the personal fate of the king (except for v. 6), this episode concerns the public future of the dynasty and the city.

Abruptly, Babylon enters the purview of the narrative in the person of Merodach-baladan, son of Baladan. We, along with the king and the prophet, have been completely preoccupied with the threat of Assyria (see v. 6). The appearance of Babylon in the narrative suggests anti-Assyrian intrigue, for Babylon was a stifled province of Assyria that ached for its autonomy. Perhaps the visit was an attempt to provoke Hezekiah into active rebellion against Assyria, surely a high-risk venture.

Whatever may have been the motivation for the visit, Hezekiah is an overly responsive host who welcomes the visiting dignitaries. (We note reference to his sickness in past tense in v. 12, suggesting the efficacy of the prophetic promise of healing.) Hezekiah’s welcome includes a candid, perhaps exhibitionist, display of royal resources, both economic and military. It is the kind of exhibit that one might make only to one’s most trusted allies, even though this is, as far as we know, a first meeting. One may suspect that discussion and negotiation may have moved far toward an anti-Assyrian conspiracy, though no hint of that is offered in the narrative.

When the envoys from Babylon have 
gone, the prophet and the king have a
conversation, suggesting that Isaiah has 
easy and frequent access to the king. 
The prophet asks two questions that the 
king answers without hesitation: “From 
Babylon.” “They have seen everything.”
There is no hint in the prophet’s questions nor in the entire exchange of any note of reprimand. It could be that this is only an innocent enquiry, a gathering of information among friends. The prophet, however, is always a prophet, always holding out to royal power (yet another dimension of governance to which the king has not adequately attended). What may have been simply an innocent act of friendship on the part of the king toward his new allies, in prophetic perspective, was a foolish and unnecessary exposure that makes Jerusalem freshly vulnerable.

In any case, the exchange between prophet and king promptly produces a prophetic oracle (20:16-19). The oracle is not connected to the immediately preceding meeting. There is no “therefore” of cause and effect, as though Hezekiah’s careless exhibition would produce danger. Indeed, it may be that the oracle stands alone and would have come anyway. The narrative, however, arranges the materials to suggest more than that.

In contrast to the exchange of vv. 1-11, this oracle is harsh. There is no indictment, no reason given that appeals to the king’s waywardness or disobedience. It is possible that this is simply, in context, a prophetic anticipation of what is inevitable in the rise and fall of great powers. In any case, the prophetic oracle looks ahead to the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem and its treasury.

The prophet declares that Babylon will come and seize everything. More than the loss of wealth, sons of the royal house will be taken away to the royal palace in Babylon. There they will be made subservient functionaries in the royal household of Babylon. That they are to be “eunuchs” in Babylon may be only a necessary sign of submissiveness; but the same noun bespeaks the termination of the royal dynasty, for eunuchs, even royal eunuchs, do not bear royal heirs. The announcement bespeaks a sorry, humiliating termination of the monarchy.

Hezekiah’s response to the oracle is perhaps shameless, certainly pathos-filled (20:19). The first part of the response echoes the pious response of the priest Eli when told of the divine judgment against his priestly family:

It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him. (1 Sam 3:18)

That part of the royal response voices an unflinching piety and readiness to trust and submit to Yahweh’s purpose in any case, exactly what we would expect from Hezekiah. The second part of the response, however, is less noble, suggesting that the king reckons his own life, and reign will be undisturbed, as though he had no care for what comes after.

Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 524–26.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email