Last Sunday, my pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor at The Compass Church, preached a sermon on Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:10-13). It was a great sermon, a sermon in which Jeff emphasized Hezekiah’s reaction to Sennacherib’s letter.
I have been in the ministry for more than fifty years and this was the first time I heard anyone preaching on this text. The reason for this lack of sermons on Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah is that few pastors preach from unknown or difficult texts of the Old Testament.
Since most people who read the Bible may be unfamiliar with Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah, a review of the text is in order:
“Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. Shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my predecessors destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?” (2 Kings 19:10-13).
When Hezekiah received Sennacherib’s letter, he became very apprehensive, but he did the right thing: he went to the temple and prayed: “Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; then Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD and spread it before the LORD” (2 Kings 19:14).
But this letter was not the first letter Sennacherib wrote. He also wrote a “Letter to God,” the content of which will be explained below. However, a note of caution is in order.
The text of 2 Kings 18 and 19 is complicated. The problem scholars face is whether 2 Kings 18 and 19 deals with one or two invasions by Sennacherib. I have discussed this issue in detail in my post, “Hezekiah and Sennacherib.” The comments below presuppose a knowledge of the issues related to Sennacherib’s invasion and whether there were one or two invasions.
I strongly recommend that you read my previous post before reading the present post. I accept the two invasions theory and Sennacherib’s “Letter to God” seems to confirm this view.
In an article titled “Sennacherib’s ‘Letter to God’ on His Campaign in Judah,” Nadav Na’aman translates an Assyrian inscription known as the “Azekah Inscription” in which Sennacherib says that Asshur, his God, encouraged him to invade the land of Judah. Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah is described in a shorter version in the Annals of Sennacherib (ANET 288).
In the course of his campaign against the Philistine cities, Sennacherib defeated the Philistine kings, received tributes from the rulers of the Philistine cities, and placed on the throne people who were loyal to Assyria.
In his attempt at independence from Assyria, Hezekiah “attacked the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city” (2 Kings 18:8). Hezekiah conquered the city of Gath and fortified it in preparation for the Assyrian invasion. In his campaign against Judah, Sennacherib captured the city of Gath, the royal city of the Philistines which Hezekiah had captured, a city that had been under Assyrian control.
Sennacherib also conquered several Judeans cities, including Lachish (2 Kings 18:14) and the stronghold of Azekah. Azekah was located in the Valley of Elah. In the Azekah Inscription, Sennacherib said that he besieged Azekah and set battering rams against its fortified wall before capturing the city and carrying off its spoils.
After his victory against Hezekiah, which is described in my first post, Sennacherib returned to Assyria to pay homage to Asshur, his god, for the victories his army attained in his campaign in Palestine. Sennacherib’s homage was in the form of a letter to Assur.
According to Na’aman, a “Letter to God” “was the sort of personal report of the king to Asshur his god on his activities during campaigns carried out in the god’s name, and such texts were composed for only the most outstanding of the campaigns conducted by the king” (1974:30).
A “Letter to God” was meant to be read before the god Asshur. Asshur’s temple was located in the city of Asshur which was the old capital of the Assyrian empire. Sennacherib’s “Letter to God” describes his campaign in Palestine and his victory against Judah in 701 B.C. It was probably written at the end of his campaign in 701, after his return to Assyria.
The letter was written in order to thank Asshur for the victory against the enemies of Assyria and to glorify and magnify the god for his help. Sennacherib’s “Letter to God” was written to be read in public, before the priests of Asshur, the elders of the city, and to all the people crediting Asshur with the victories and enumerating the booty taken from the conquered cities.
In his descriptions of these letters written by the kings of Assyria, Oppenheim wrote: “It is quite obvious that the letters were intended to be an essential part of a specific ceremony of a communal nature. This ceremony seems to have marked the end of each of the institutionalized annual campaigns” (1960:144).
The reading of the letter was probably done by the king who also acted as the high priest of Asshur or by one of the priests who ministered in the temple. At this time of celebration, the national god and the soldiers received a portion of the booty.
After Hezekiah attempted to revolt against Assyria again, Sennacherib invaded Judah a second time. Before coming to Jerusalem to besiege the city, Sennacherib sent his letter to Hezekiah saying: “Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. Shall you be delivered?”
But, this time Hezekiah did not trust in his army. In the Azekah Inscription, Sennacherib said that in preparation for the siege, Hezekiah had brought his troops within the city of Jerusalem in order to fight against Sennacherib, but Sennacherib shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.”
This time, Hezekiah went to the temple and prayed for God’s help (2 Kings 19:15-19). In his prayer, Hezekiah said: “So now, O LORD our God, save us, I pray you, from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone” (2 Kings 19:19).
In response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God sent a message to him through the prophet Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I have heard your prayer to me about King Sennacherib of Assyria” (2 Kings 19:20).
Then Isaiah presented God’s decision about Sennacherib and his boast: “Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (2 Kings 19:32-34).
That night the angel of the LORD visited the Assyrian camp and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand soldiers in Sennacherib’s army.
This action of God, in answer to Hezekiah’s prayer, fulfilled what Isaiah had predicted: Sennacherib did come into Jerusalem, his soldiers did not shoot an arrow there, and his army did not cast up a siege ramp against the city.
When Sennacherib saw that his army was devastated, he left and returned to Assyria. This time, however, there was no “Letter to God.” A few years later, as Sennacherib was worshiping in the house of his god, his sons killed him with the sword in the temple.
This story is the tale of two letters: Sennacherib’s “Letter to God” and Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah. Sennacherib presented his letter before his god. Hezekiah spread Sennacherib’s letter “before the LORD” (2 Kings 19:14). While Hezekiah was praying in the temple, his God saved him. While Sennacherib was praying in the temple, his god could not save him.
Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah was meant to intimidate him. However, Hezekiah’s prayer shows his trust in God and his confidence that God would deliver him. Hezekiah said: “O LORD the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15).
Asshur was not a god. Yahweh, the God of Israel, he alone is God.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Na’aman, Nadav. “Sennacherib’s `Letter to God’ on His Campaign to Judah.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 214 (April 1974): 25-39.
Oppenheim, A. Leo. “The City of Asshur in 714 B.C.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 19 (1960): 133-147.
Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.