Hezekiah’s Political and Economic Reforms

King Hezekiah
Painter Unknown (17th Century)

At the same time Hezekiah was reforming the religious life of Judah, encouraging the people to worship and serve Yahweh only, he was also embarking on a program to reorganize the government and improve the economic conditions of Judah. Many of these reforms were likely done in preparation for his revolt against Assyrian domination. However, Hezekiah’s economic reforms were a genuine effort at improving the socio-economic conditions of the people of Judah.

Some of Hezekiah’s political reforms were part of his effort to arm Judah, to prepare for war, and to plan for an eventual siege of Jerusalem. According to the Chronicler, Hezekiah repaired the broken walls of Jerusalem, built defensive towers on the walls, and reinforced the Millo, the defensive rampart of Jerusalem.

Hezekiah also built a second wall of defense around the city which extended the city boundaries. This second wall may have been a defensive measure to enclose the city’s water supply within the walls of Jerusalem. However, archaeological evidence indicates that there was a sizable increase in Jerusalem’s population during the time of Hezekiah, possibly due to the migration of people from the Northern Kingdom to Jerusalem before, during, and after the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. This increase in population may have been a motivating factor in extending the wall around the city.

Hezekiah made many weapons and shields to supply the army with the armament needed for the war (2 Chronicles 32:5). He set military commanders over the people. Sennacherib’s account of his campaigns against Hezekiah indicates that Hezekiah had both regular and irregular troops under his command. This information indicates that Hezekiah’s army was composed of both the national militia and of foreign mercenaries. According to the Chronicler, Hezekiah gathered his officers and the people together at the public square in front of the city gate and encouraged the people with these words:

“Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles” (2 Chronicles 32:7-8).

Hezekiah’s economic reforms and great wealth are seen by the Chronicler as evidence of God’s blessings (2 Chronicles 32:29). Hezekiah prepared for a possible siege by building storehouses to hold surpluses of wine and oil. He also built stalls for his livestock. This description of Hezekiah’s wealth may reflect his achievements as a king honored by God but may have also another purpose. These economic reforms and building projects were probably designed to provide stockpiles of food for distribution in a time of shortage, such as during a siege.

One of Hezekiah’s greatest engineering achievements was also a step he took to prepare Jerusalem for a possible siege. Jerusalem’s main water source was the Gihon spring, a perennial fountain located outside the walls of the city. During a time of siege, the city’s water supply could be cut off by the besieging army, thus depriving the inhabitants of the city and the city defenders of drinking water. This problem is apparent in the reference to the aqueduct of the upper pool mentioned in Isaiah 7:3, which indicates that Ahaz was taking steps to protect the city’s water supply in preparation for a possible siege of Jerusalem during the Syro-Ephraimite war.

Hezekiah’s aim was to bring water from the Gihon spring and at the same time conceal the source of water from his enemies. In order to build a tunnel and bring water into the city (cf. 2 Kings 20:20), Hezekiah’s engineers cut an aqueduct that is more than 1700 feet long (about 500 meters long), underneath the walls of Jerusalem, through solid rock, in order to bring water from the Gihon spring into the Pool of Siloam. The Gihon Spring was concealed and the cave was sealed up in order to protect the source of water. An inscription written in ancient Hebrew script and found on the wall of the tunnel in 1880 confirms the Biblical account of this engineering achievement and describes how the two teams of hewers working from opposite directions literally met in the middle.

The passage reads (ANET p. 321):

[…when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:- While [ . . . ] (were) stil [ . . . ] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.

In addition to military improvements in preparation for a conflict with Assyria, Hezekiah also implemented other reforms which were designed to improve Judah’s economy and promote a more efficient government.

One of these changes was his attempt to introduce a system of tax collection and the development of a royal storage system for collecting tax in kind. Excavations at several sites in Judah have uncovered large storage jars containing a special type of seal impression on them. Hundreds of these seal impressions have been unearthed almost exclusively in Judean sites. The most popular of these seal impressions are those that contain the Hebrew inscription lmlk, a word which means “belonging to the king.” The seal impressions also include the name of four places: Hebron, Socoh, Ziph and mmsht, a name that remains unidentified.

According to J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 413,

“The use of these impressions was introduced under Hezekiah and is evidence for the administrative system used during his reign. The jars were part of a system of tax collection in kind or a royal storage program. The material collected in these containers was sent to four district centers for storage, redistribution, and administrative/military usage. These centers were Socoh for the Shephelah region, Ziph for the Negeb, Hebron for the southern hill country and mmsht for Jerusalem and the northern Judean hill country.”

There is some debate concerning the dating of lmlk seals. However, most archaeologists believe that they come from the time of Hezekiah and are related to his economic reforms. The lmlk seals indicate that Hezekiah developed an organized administrative system for the distribution and storage of supplies for use in times of peace and war.

According to John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), p. 284, it is possible that the lmlk seals reflect an attempt at standardizing weights and measures in order to discourage dishonesty in trade. Bright also suggests that Hezekiah may have developed a system of guilds to protect the craftsmen from exploitation.

Hezekiah’s political and economic reforms indicate that there was genuine evidence of prosperity in Judah at the close of the eighth century B.C. Evidence of this prosperity, at least from Hezekiah’s perspective, may be seen in the Biblical account of the Babylonian envoys’ visit to Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:12-19). Merodach-Baladan, King of Babylon, sent envoys to Hezekiah at the time of his illness, probably as part of the Babylonian’s plan to revolt against Assyria. Hezekiah welcomed the Babylonian envoys and “showed them all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses” (2 Kings 20:13).

Hezekiah’s religious and economic reforms and his military preparations occurred prior to the invasion of Sennacherib in 701 B.C. The accumulation of weapons, the reorganization of the military personnel as well as the building of walls, fortifications, and the water tunnel would have taken time and appear to have been done in preparation for a revolt in his attempt at independence from Assyrian control.

NOTE: For other studies on Hezekiah, King of Judah, and the historical events related to his reign, read my post, Studies on Hezekiah, King of Judah.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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