Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
II KINGS CHAPTER 19
On hearing from his ministers about Ravshakeh's blasphemy, King Hezekiah rent his garments over the desecration of God's Name (Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 2:10). As King David's worthy successor, Hezekiah's response to the Assyrian taunts was to turn only to God - through his own prayers and through sending to Isaiah, the prophet of the generation. Hezekiah's main plea in both his prayers and his message to the prophet was that God should avenge the affront to His Name.
In response, Isaiah prophesied of Sennacheriv: "Behold I shall put a spirit in him and he will hear a rumor and return to his land and I shall cause him to fall by the sword in his land" (v 7).As Rashi (ad loc.) explains, this prophecy was fulfilled in stages. The "rumor" that took Sennacheriv from Lachish near Jerusalem down to Egypt and North Africa was that Tirhakah king of Kush had decided to stand up to Ashur's sole world superpower aspirations. Sennacheriv went to fight against Kush and its allies, Phut and Egypt , and he was victorious, taking all their treasures. (RaDaK on v 7 explains that this was so that Judah would be greatly enriched with booty when the angel finally struck Sennacheriv's army.) The next stage of the prophecy - "he will return to his land" - was fulfilled after Sennacheriv lost his entire army in one night (v 35) and fled, and the last stage - "I shall cause him to fall by the sword in his land" -- took place when his own sons killed him (v 37).
Meanwhile Sennacheriv was still riding on the crest of his wave of success. From the battlefields of N. Africa, Sennacheriv - swelled with pride - sent more emissaries to Jerusalem in order to intensify his psychological warfare against the tiny city under siege. The letters they brought were full of more ranting blasphemy as Sennacheriv paraded his many victories, unaware that they had come only because God had taken him as His rod and scourge against the nations for His own holy purpose. Through Sennacheriv's policy of exiling people from their own ancestral lands and moving them to areas with which they had no connection, he "mixed up all the nations" (Berachos 28a; Yoma 54a etc.). This in itself was in preparation for the eventual exile of Judah , just as "Joseph moved people from city to city as a reminder that they had no more share in the earth, and he sent the people of one city to another. His intention was to remove the disgrace from his brothers so that people would not be able to call them exiles" (Rashi on Genesis 47:21).
Hezekiah took the letters from the hands of Sennacheriv's emissaries and after reading them, went up to the Temple , where he "spread them out before God" (v 14). Of course God knows everything, but when Hezekiah spread out the letters, he was teaching that when we pray, we should talk out everything that is on our minds and weighing in our hearts. Setting everything out before God in detail is an essential part of personal prayer.
Hezekiah's prayer vv 15-19 was a request to God to sanctify His name by thwarting Sennacheriv now despite all his earlier successes over idolatrous peoples in order to show that God alone rules and not idols of wood and stone. Hezekiah's argument is somewhat comparable to that of Moses when he interceded for Israel after the sin of the golden calf begging God not to destroy them so that the Egyptians should not be able to say that He was unable to save them in the wilderness (Ex. 32:12).
Isaiah's prophecy (20-34) is an eloquent affirmation that everything is in God's hands and that He raised up Sennacheriv and He will destroy him for the sake of David and Jerusalem .
But Sennacheriv was still riding high. Having completed his successful campaign against Kush and its allies, he again set his sights on Jerusalem and marched to Nov (whose priests had been killed by Saul), where he was poised ready to attack the nearby capital (Rashi on v 35). The outstanding miracle whereby his overwhelming forces were simply struck down in one night by God's angel is celebrated in the songs of the Pesach Seder night, on which it took place. The sages commented that while Pharaoh had uttered his blasphemies himself so that his armies were struck down at the Red Sea by God Himself, Sennacheriv's armies were destroyed by God's angel (MAL'ACH) because Sennacheriv's blasphemies were delivered by an emissary (MAL'ACH; Sanhedrin 94b-95a). It is said that his forces' bodies were burned up from the inside but their garments were left intact around them because they were from the descendants of Noah's son Shem, as it says, "The children of Shem, Eilam and Ashur" (Gen. 1:22), and Shem together with his brother Yapheth covered the nakedness of their father with a garment (Gen. 9:23). For this reason God said to the Angel Michael, "Leave their garments and burn their souls" (Gen. 9:23; Shemos Rabba 18:5).
Sennacheriv's ignominious end was his just deserts for his overweening pride and arrogance.
"In those days Hezekiah became mortally sick." (v 1). Rashi (ad loc.) states that this took place three days before the destruction of Sennaheriv's army: it greatly adds to the drama of the mortally stricken king and his "great weeping" (v 3) when we understand that it took place precisely as the overwhelming hordes of Assyrian troops were encamped outside Jerusalem poised for their final attack. It looked like the very end for Judah, the House of David and the entire enterprise that started when Israel received the Torah at Sinai. There was an influential fifth column in Jerusalem ready to open the gates to Sennecheriv. Everything depended on the king - and the prophet was telling him "you are going to die." - "in this world" - ".and you will not live" - "in the world to come" (Rashi).
A lesser person might have resigned himself to his terrible fate, but not Hezekiah, who said, "I have a tradition from the house of my father's father (=David) that even if a sharp sword is resting on a man's neck, he should not hold back from prayer" (Berachos 10a). "And he turned his face to the wall and prayed." (v 2). Rabbi Nachman explains that the "face" is the person's inner spiritual and intellectual powers, while the "wall" is inside the stony heart, and that if our hearts are dulled and insensitive, we must turn our minds and intellectual powers and shine them into the heart (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #39).
Hezekiah prayed, ".please remember . that I did good in Your eyes" (v 3). From here we learn the power of arousing our good points in our personal prayers and Hisbodedus. The rabbis commented that Hezekiah was specifically alluding to his having put away the Book of Remedies in order to take away material means of healing so that people would have no other option but to pray, believe and trust in God for healing. Now Hezekiah himself was faced with the challenge of life-threatening illness - and his response was to repent completely and weep with all his heart.
Hezekiah's miraculous healing through the power of complete repentance is the archetype of Torah healing, and is discussed in detail in "Wings of the Sun: The Torah Healing Tradition".
The Talmud (Berachos 10a) teaches that the "sin" that led to the terrible decree against Hezekiah was that, having seen with holy spirit that he was destined to have a wicked son - his successor Menasheh - he refused to marry. The prophet castigated him for delving into Torah mysteries instead of carrying out the Torah commandment to procreate. Hezekiah asked if Isaiah would agree to give him his daughter in marriage so that they might produce righteous children, but Isaiah answered that the decree had already been made, and Hezekiah undertook to have children. In the merit of his complete repentance Hezekiah was granted healing and another fifteen years were added to his life (v 5).
TURNING THE CLOCK BACK
While still mortally sick but having heard the prophecy that he was to live, Hezekiah asked for a sign that he would indeed be healed and ascend to the House of God on the third day (v 9). Isaiah offered him his choice of a sign: either the sun would go forward by ten degrees on the special steps that were carefully positioned to serve as a natural clock like the sundial, or else it would go backwards. Hezekiah requested the harder option: that time should go backwards so as to have a ten-hour longer day (v 11) and the prophet called out to God, who sent the sign. It is said that on the day Hezekiah's idolatrous father Ahaz had died, the sun set ten hours early to leave no time for any eulogies, and now, to compensate, it set ten hours later.
Perhaps the miracle of time stopping still to make a longer day was a sign of the extra time Hezekiah was given to live and strengthen Judah in preparation for the decree of the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon, which came about as the end result of his son Menasheh's idolatry in Jerusalem. The decree was irrevocable, but in Hezekiah's fifteen years of grace he was able to "stop the clock" for the time being, as it were, in order to continue with his spiritual revival in Judah .
Babylon , the very cradle of "civilization" in the era after Noah's flood (Genesis ch 11), was among the cities subject to Ashur at the height of its power (II Kings 14:24). The destruction of Sennacheriv's army at the gates of Jerusalem brought about the downfall of the Assyrian empire, enabling Babylon to advance to the center of the world stage. Babylon was destined to be the rod of chastisement that would complete the moralistic story of the Prophets with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah . Everything had started in Babylon . Abraham had gone out from Babylon and the "furnace of the Kasdim" in search of the Promised Land, and it was to Babylon that Judah would have to return in order to prove that it is possible to observe and study the Torah even in exile.
Hezekiah's miraculous recovery was major news in the world of his time - it is said that on the day that time stopped still, the king of Babylon got up from his long post-breakfast/lunch sleep to find that it was morning. He thought it was already the next morning and was furious with his attendants for having let him sleep for so long, until they told him that the sun had gone backwards through the will of the God of Hezekiah (Psikta 14; Rashi on v 12). It was on hearing this that the Babylonian king Brodach Baladan ben Baladan (not to be confused with Bin Laden) sent greetings to Hezekiah (v 12).
In the latter's great exhilaration in the aftermath of his own miraculous healing and the sensational downfall of Sennacheriv's army, both of which took place on the same day, he very injudiciously took his exotic Babylonian visitors on a detailed tour of all his treasure-houses and inside the Temple itself, where he even opened up the Ark of the Covenant and showed them the Tablets of Stone (Rashi on v 13). It is most unwise to show all one's treasures to unknown strangers, and Hezekiah's indiscretion planted the seeds of the Babylonian appetite for the Temple treasures that resulted in their being looted when it was destroyed.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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