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Tisha B'Av and the Messiah: What Mourning Says About Our Destiny.
Video 5 of 7
Basically, we’ve seen this: Each step forward in Chizkiah’s reign has been like taking a step a bit further back in biblical history. So, first Chizkiah had done things that had rectified failings of his father. He opened the doors to the Temple that his father had closed, he broke free from the alliance with Assyria that his father had created, and he uprooted the idolatry that his father had spread throughout the land. But then after that he sought to right the wrongs of an earlier era, Yeravam’s era. He had issued invitations to Ephraim and Menashe to join and worship together with his Kingdom, and in so doing, he was bringing two sides of a long-divided Kingdom together.
So the question now is this: As we look at the next, and culminating, event of Chizkiah’s reign – his defense of Jerusalem against the siege of Sancherev – might we find hints that Chizkiah is redeeming an even earlier moment in Jewish history?
I think we do find these hints. The biblical text actually sprinkles them everywhere in its account of Chizkiah’s last stand. We can see these hints if we play one of my favorite games: Where have we heard all this before?
So consider the following elements of the story of Chizkiah’s last stand against Sancherev. What, if anything, does all this remind you of?
First… think about Chizkiah’s decision to rebel against Sancherev. Before that, his Kingdom had been serving Assyria, as a vassal state. When Chizkiah pulls away from Assyria, Sancherev hears about it, doesn’t like it, and so he leaves his comfortable palace with a whole mess of troops to come chase down his former servants.
So, when else in Biblical history had Israelites been in a position of servitude to another nation and then had declared independence against that power? When else had the enemy king gone and chased down his former servants?
And here’s another similarity to think about. So here is Sancherev, right? He’s chasing down his former servants. And his messenger, Ravshakeh, he appeals directly to the masses of Jerusalem. He asks them to consider really two things. First,they’ve been foolish to rebel against him; and second, wouldn’t it be better for them to just surrender and live, than for them to resist and die?
So when else in biblical history do Israelites, who just rebelled against an oppressive king, find themselves considering such things? That perhaps rebellion maybe wasn’t such a great idea after all; that maybe they should have simply been content to serve the enemy, rather than face certain death instead?
Okay, let’s continue with like a third element here. Here’s what happens next in the biblical retelling of the Sancherev story...
The enemy is at the gates, right? And Chizkiah, he exhorts his people to stand firm. He what does he say? He says, al tira’u, don’t be afraid. God’s with us, he tells them, le’azreinu ulehilachem milchamoteinu, to help us, and to fight this war on our behalf. And in fact, that happens. An angel of God shows up and faces the enemy on behalf of Israel.
So what does that remind you of? When else in Biblical history does a leader exhort people to stand their ground, telling them those exact words, al tira’u? Do not be afraid? When else does a leader tell his people that fear is not warranted, because God is going to do the fighting on their behalf? And when else does an angel of God show up and actually face the enemy on behalf of Israel?
You may have guessed by now the other earlier episode I’m talking about. If not, here’s one last clue, and this one’s a dead giveaway.
So here it is, it’s one fine morning, the residents of Jerusalem, they wake up and suddenly they find their enemies lying dead before them. And by way of summing that up, the biblical text says, vayosha Hashem et-Yechizkiyahu veet yoshvei Yerushalayim miyad Sancherev melech-ashur, and God saved Chizkiyahu and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from Sancherev the King of Assyria. Now, think about that phraseology: Vayosha Hashem et x miyad y. And God saved x from the hands of y. Think of that as kind of like a formula. When else do you get that formula?
Well, that particular phraseology, vayosha Hashem et x miyad y, it only appears one other time in the entire Hebrew Bible. We get that language in connection to another time that the Israelites, at the break of dawn, suddenly found a vast and overpowering army lying dead before them. We get that language when walls of water collapsed on Egyptian armies, saving the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds: Vayosha Hashem bayom hahu et-Yisrael miyad Mitzrayim, and God saved Israel that day from the hands of Egypt.
Yes, it all lines up. Everything that happened for Chizkiah and his cohort at the siege of Jerusalem, it’s all happened before. A version of it happened for the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds.
Back then at the Sea, right, what happened? Israel had been serving Egypt, then rebelled against them, and Pharaoh and a whole mess of troops, they chased them down. Where? At the Sea of Reeds.
And at the Sea, the people who confronted Pharaoh’s armies said to themselves exactly what the residents of Jerusalem later hear from Ravshakeh: That it would have been better to serve the enemy and live, than rebel and die. That’s what they’re worried about.
At the sea, Moses exhorts the people. He says, al tira’u, don’t be afraid. Hashem yilachem lachem, God will fight for you. Well, Chizkiah later says those exact same things. Same language, al tira’u.
At the sea, the people needed an angel of God to stay in position behind them to protect them against the advancing Egyptians. Similarly, for Chizkiah, only intervention by an angel of God would ultimately make Chizkiah’s citizenry safe from Sancherev.
So all in all, these two events really do seem to line up: Chizkiah’s last stand against Sancherev and Israel’s last stand against Pharaoh, back at the Splitting of the Sea. And part of the picture, by the way, would seem to be the Pesach offering that precedes both events.
Right? Because back in Egypt, before the splitting of the sea, there was a Pesach offering. People had slaughtered a lamb, an animal worshipped by the Egyptians, and in doing that they had rejected the gods of their former masters, they signified their allegiance to the One God in Heaven. That very first Pesach offering – it granted Israel immunity from a plague, a plague that would descend in the middle of the night to strike Israel’s enemies.
And now all that’s happening again. Chizkiah, too, he’d convened this grand Pesach offering. It’s going to have the effect of wiping out idolatry, just as the original Passover offering did, right? Remember, how the masses on the way to Jerusalem, they uproot idolatrous altars on the way to celebrate Pesach together? It’s like Chizkiah’s Pesach is echoing the original one. And, after Chizkiah’s Pesach offering, a plague would descend in the middle of the night to strike Assyria’s men, and the Jerusalemites are immune from that plague. It‘s as if the Tenth Plague and the Splitting of the Sea in Chizkiah’s day, those two events get combined into a single display of force: God is fighting now for the Israelites by means of this plague, and all Chizkiah’s people had to do was be still. Because once more, dawn is going to break and the Israelites, surrounded by walls of stone this time instead of water, they’re going to see their enemies, this time it’s Assyria instead of Egypt, completely vanquished, without them, the people of Chizkiah’s Jerusalem, having even to lift a finger.
OK, so back to the Chizkiah story for a minute. Now let me ask you: What should happen next?
In other words: If Chizkiah’s last stand in Jerusalem really mirrors that Splitting of the Sea event, well, if that’s the case, shouldn’t the next thing that happens in the Chizkiah story mirror the next thing that happened at the Sea of Reeds story, too?
I mean, after the Splitting of the Sea, Israel sang a song of thanksgiving to God. Maybe history was waiting for Chizkiah to have done something like that, too.
The argument I’m making here, it’s not just mechanical. It’s not just that textually the two events, the Splitting of the Sea and Chizkiah’s last stand, they line up with each other, so their aftermath by rights should line up, too. No. I’m really saying more than that. I’m saying that there’s a reason the biblical text lines up these events. It’s because they’re utterly unique in biblical history.
Because look, obviously, there had been other miracles in biblical history, I mean, there were lots of moments when the Divine Hand intervenes to save a small force facing down a larger enemy. It happened at Jericho in the times of Joshua when the walls come tumbling down. It happens with Deborah and Barak. It happens lots of times. But in all those other times, human action and Divine intervention work together somehow. God does something to help out, and then the people have to do the rest. I mean, God knocks down the walls of Jericho, right? But then Joshua still needs to conquer the city. God aids Deborah, but Barak has still got to fight. But for Israel at the Sea and for Chizkiah’s cohort at Jerusalem, it was different. Their victories are engineered entirely through Divine intervention. The people didn’t need to do anything. When the text in both cases says: Vayosha Hashem et Yisrael miyad Mitzrayim or vayosha HaShem et Chizkiah miyad Sancherev, it’s actually true. I mean, God just saved the people unilaterally. The people don’t fight at all.
And so after that, back in Egypt, the people sang. Led by Moses and Miriam, they erupted in song, a song of thanksgiving to the God who saved them. And maybe that’s what led the Sages of the Talmud to wonder: Where was Chizkiah’s song?
And by saying that, the Sages didn’t mean to say that Chizkiah wasn’t a thankful kind of king. No. He excelled at expressing thanks. He even excelled at song. He’d led the Kohanim and Leviim in song when they purified the Temple; he had led the people in joyful songs when they recommitted themselves to God and came to the Temple in throngs. He celebrated with them intensely in each of those moments.
But all that was leading up to something – to one, last songful celebration that fate was waiting for him to initiate. A celebration not just with Kohanim and Leviim, not just with noblemen, not just with his Kingdom, or even with the Northern Kingdom, too. A celebration with an even wider circle.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of his victory over Sancherev, and his concurrent miraculous recovery from a deathly illness, that was when messengers arrive from Babylon. And ask yourself: Why had these messengers come? In a way, the text suggests, they had come to sing. They were just on the cusp of that response.
Go back to the text and you’ll see it. The language in the Book of Chronicles, it tells us that the messengers came lidrosh et hamophet, to inquire of the sign that they had seen.
Yeah, there were lots of signs lately; things that were happening that just didn’t happen everyday. Assyria, a regional superpower, had just collapsed in defeat at the walls of a comparatively puny power, this little Kingdom of Judah. And remember, right around this time, Chizkiah made a miraculous recovery from a deathly illness. And the prophet Isaiah happened to have given Chizkiah a very public sign to attest to that recovery. The shadows on the sundial, they would recede backwards by ten degrees, almost as if time itself was going backwards. Chizkiah would be granted more time in which to live. So there you are, you know, you’re sitting there in Babylonia, and you hear about the miraculous defeat of Assyria, and then all of a sudden, the shadows of the sun start to shift on you. I mean, this stuff doesn’t happen every day, right?
So the King of Babylon, he hears all this has something to do with Chizkiah, this monarch of this little, insignificant kingdom, off there in the Fertile Crescent, Judea. So, you know, he sends messengers to kind of figure things out. They’re there to congratulate Chizkiah, but also, lidrosh et hamophet, to kind of figure this out: What’s the deal with these miracles?
When those messengers arrived, what should Chizkiah have done?
The text seems to be telling us: This is the largest concentric circle. Chizkiah, who in the near past, persuaded his countrymen to join him in joyful celebration of a Father in Heaven that they all shared, well, the Babylonians, they also shared that Father. They weren’t Israelites, but if there’s one God in Heaven, it’s their God too. They had noticed the miracles wrought by that Father, and they were bringing congratulations. It was time to celebrate with them, too.
Had Chizkiah sung at this moment, had he celebrated with these messengers from Babylon, the text seems to be implying he would have fulfilled an age-old destiny. He would not just have replayed the Song at the Sea, as it were. He would have redeemed that song. Remember, when Chizkiah was replaying all those other events from earlier days – from his father’s era, from Yeravam’s era – he wasn’t just replaying past events, he was fixing them, making them better. As we’ll see in our final video, there was a chance to do that with the Song of the Sea, too. There was latent potential in that original song, and even after all these centuries, it was still waiting to be released.
Chizkiah had a chance to make that happen. Our last video will explore what became of that chance.
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