Tisha B'Av And The Messiah That Almost Was
The Triumph And Tragedy Of King Chizkiah
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
On Tisha B'Av we read the Book of Lamentations (or Eicha). But in reality, we don't actually read it. We sing it with a mournful melody, which conveys a palpable sense of loss. Even if you can't understand the words, the sense of loss comes through just from the tune.
But there’s something very unique about the tune, and the text of Lamentations for that matter. It’s strikingly similar to a portion of Exodus – when we are “enslaved in a foreign land.” But what do Eicha and Exodus have to do with each other on Tisha B’Av?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he compares the text of Lamentations and the Exodus story and discovers a new way of understanding the destruction of Jerusalem.
Eicha is a book written by the prophet Jeremiah to lament the destruction of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the destruction of the entire Kingdom of Judah. The mournful tones of Eicha, they convey this really palpable sense of loss. Even if you can’t understand the words, the sense of loss comes through just from the tune, just from just the song.
In this video, I want to make a counterintuitive argument to you: That the mournful song that we know of as Eicha has its roots in a silenced song of joy. I know that sounds kind of mysterious, but in that mystery I want to show you lies great power.
Biblical Connections to Jeremiah's LamentationsThe story I have to tell you begins with a fascinating little pattern, easy to miss, nestled into one of the introductory lines of the Book of Eicha. Let me show it to you.
Galtah Yehudah meoni umerov avodai, Yehuda has been exiled. By the way, the word Yehuda here is going to refer to the Kingdom of Judah, or Judea. Anyway, Yehuda has been exiled, it has suffered oppression and great servitude. Hi yashvah vagoyim, she dwells among the nations. Lo matzah manoach, finding no place at all to rest. Kol-rodfeyah hisiguah bein hametzarim, all her pursuers caught up to her, between the narrow straits.
Think about the first image in that verse: Galtah Yehudah, a nation far from home, living in a foreign land. There, they suffer oni, oppression, and rov avodah, great servitude. What do those three elements remind you of? Was there another time in history when we found ourselves in a foreign land, suffering oppression, servitude?
There surely was. It was, of course, the very first moments of our national history, when we found ourselves enslaved in the Land of Egypt.
So now let’s go back to that verse in Eicha. That nation in exile, what exactly did the verse say it was going through? Lo matzah manoach, it has no place to rest, this nation. As it turns out, those words are actually a quote; Jeremiah is taking them from the Book of Genesis, where they appear in the story of the Great Flood. When Noach was aboard that ark, he sent out a dove to see if the waters had receded but the dove flew and flew, and – lo matzah manoach – it couldn’t find anywhere to set its foot down. The waters were everywhere.
Now, in Eicha, Jeremiah uses those same words to describe the current exile, Judah’s exile in the Land of Babylon. But those words are reminiscent of Egypt, too, actually, when there was a water world, a world in which there was no terra firma on which you could even put your foot down.
There was a moment like that. It was at the Splitting of the Sea. The Israelites stood with their backs to the water. Egypt was advancing on them. There was nowhere to run. To retreat was to enter a world of water, utterly inhospitable to life.
And now look at the next words in Eicha: Kol-rodfeyah hisiguah, all her pursuers caught up with her. Do these words continue to remind us, not just of Judah’s exile into Babylon, but of the Israelite experience back in Egypt? As it turns out, they actually do.
Those two words in Eicha – rodfeyah and hisiguah – are the exact same words used by the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to characterize Egypt pursuing the Israelites and then finally catching up to them at the shores of the Sea. Vayirdefu Mitzrayim achareihem vayasigu otam chonim al-hayam, Egypt pursued them, and then caught up with them, as they were encamped by the Sea.
Hmm, so now, let’s go back to Eicha. Look at the next and final words of that verse. According to Jeremiah, where exactly did her pursuers catch her? Kol-rodfeyah hisiguah bein hametzarim – they caught up with her between the narrow straits. But that word for straits: How do you spell it, metzarim? Mem, tzadik, resh, yud, mem – it's the same letters, in order, as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim.
The Meaning Hidden in the Book of Lamentations: A "Failed Exodus"?The echoes really do seem unmistakable. Jeremiah seems, quite clearly, to be casting the cataclysm of Jerusalem’s destruction in terms that evoke the Exodus from Egypt. In choosing to use those same exact terms, Jeremiah seems to be characterizing the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem almost as a kind of failed Exodus experience.
You know, perhaps Jeremiah is playing “what if” with us, asking us to imagine an alternate ending to the Exodus – a tragic ending. Yeah, the real Exodus from Egypt, that ended triumphantly with Israel marching through the Sea of Reeds. But what if things had transpired just a little bit differently?
For example, what if the Sea hadn’t split? The Egyptian armies would had successfully pursued and attacked the Israelites as they encamped on the shores of the Sea. Like the dove during the Flood, there really would have been nowhere to put your feet down. If the Israelites tried to escape by retreating towards the Sea, the mass of water at their backs would have spelled death for everybody. Or, what if the water had split, but the Egyptian armies caught up with them before the Israelites could safely come out the other side? They would have been attacked bein hametzarim, in narrow straits, with walls of water hemming them in. The triumphant miracle of the Splitting of the Sea as it actually occurred would have become calamitous instead in these scenarios.
According to Jeremiah, that calamity, that failed Exodus, is actually kind of what happens in the destruction of Jerusalem. So what does Jeremiah mean to do by characterizing the destruction of Jerusalem as a kind of “failed Exodus” experience?
What Is the Purpose of the Book of Lamentations?You know, look, on the one hand you might just say the Book of Eicha is poetry, so you know, maybe this is just a poetic flourish. Could just be something that sounds kind of, you know, nice and poignant. So Jeremiah put it in Eicha, a book that’s meant to be poignant. But it’s also possible that, with that poignancy, Jeremiah was giving us insight – insight into the meaning of Jerusalem’s fall. What might Jeremiah want the perceptive reader to understand here?
I’d like to explore that with you over the coming video. But let me say this at the outset: At the very least, if Jeremiah is really characterizing the destruction of Jerusalem as a kind of “failed Exodus” experience, he seems to be saying that things could have happened differently, these events that we call the destruction of Jerusalem.
So this is kind of remarkable, I think, because if Jeremiah’s really characterizing the destruction of Jerusalem as a kind of “failed Exodus” experience, he seems to be saying that it could have happened differently, these events of the destruction of Jerusalem. It all could have been not just different, but maybe even wonderful.
I mean, he seems to be thinking of the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem as having been a kind of knife-edged moment in history. Kind of like “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to borrow a phrase from Dickens. I mean, he seems to be saying that this moment here, it was like an Exodus from Egypt moment, it was laden with potential; it could have gone either way. I mean, it did go horribly wrong; it became a “failed Exodus” moment. But it didn’t have to. It could have been a real Exodus moment, a moment of great salvation, instead.
But how could that even be? How could Jeremiah possibly suggest that a moment as awful, as tragic as the destruction of Jerusalem could have ended up so differently, could have ended up triumphant, like the Splitting of the Sea?
What I’d like to suggest to you in this video, is that Jeremiah might have actually been referencing an earlier moment in history. A moment deeply connected to the destruction of Jerusalem, but not the moment of destruction itself. I think Jeremiah was alluding to a critical moment earlier in time, when the dark prophecy of destruction first came to the Kingdom of Judah. That moment really did have that knife-edged quality to it, I want to suggest. It really was a kind of tipping point. It happened during the reign of King Chizkiah.
Who Was King Chizkiah?Chizkiah, or Hezekiah, in English, he lived a couple of generations before Jeremiah. Both his father, Achaz, and his son, Menashe, are described by the Bible as being very wicked kings. But Chizkiah himself is described as having been truly wonderful.
Here’s the verse that introduces him:
Vayaas hayashar be’einei Hashem kechol asher-asah David aviv.
Chezkiah did that which was right in the eyes God, according to all that David, his ancestor, had done.
BaHashem Elokei-Yisrael batach, he trusted in God.
Veacharav lo-hayah chamohu, after him there was none like him,
bechol malchei Yehudah, among all the kings of Judah,
vaasher hayu lefanav, nor among any that were before him.
Vayidbak baHashem, he held fast to God,
lo-sar meacharav, and did not turn away from Him.
Vayishmor mitzvotav asher-tzivah Hashem et-Moshe, he kept God’s commandments.
Vehayah Hashem imo, and God was with him.
So that’s the verse, that’s the Bible’s own introduction to Chizkiah. But, you know, so great was Chizkiah that the Sages of the Talmud, much later, they actually assert that Chizkiah could have been, should have been, the Messiah himself.
Chizkiah... the Almost Mashiach of Judaism?Now what this means is something we’re going to explore in this course, but for the meantime, I think it’s safe to say this: The Sages seem to be suggesting that this really could have been “the best of times.”
In Chizkiah’s day, he and Jerusalem faced war against a hardened and superior army – the forces of Sancherev, King of Assyria. At the last moment, Jerusalem was saved; a Divine plague attacked the enemy force, causing Sancherev to retreat back to Assyria and to his capital city, to Nineveh. It’s with respect to that moment that the Talmud says had Chizkiah sang songs of praises to God at that moment, he would have been the Messiah.
So whatever that means, they do seem to be saying it was like “the best of times,” but it was also kind of “the worst of times.”
Because, astounding as it may seem, it was an action of Chizkiah, this almost-Messiah, that brought the very first whisper of chorban, the very first prophetic forecast of the destruction of Judah. How could both of those things somehow live together at the same time?
What I want to do with you in this video is look with you at the life of Chizkiah, focusing in on this one fateful moment at the end of his reign, that tipping point moment. The Book of Kings, the Book of Chronicles, and the Book of Isaiah, all three of these Biblical books, they all recount that moment. And what they tell us about it is astonishing indeed.
If we can understand that moment, we’ll understand much about the Destruction of Jerusalem. And, perhaps, much about its opposite, the Messianic era itself. Come with me, and let’s take a look.
The Story of Chizkiah, King of JudahThe best of times, the worst of times. What was that “knife-edged” moment – the moment that, according to the Book of Kings, set in motion events that would culminate in the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah? The same moment that, according to the Sages, could have gone differently – could have heralded the beginning of the Messianic era.
It’s strange. If you look at the actual story of Chizkiah in the Biblical text, it really seems to be a kind of humdrum moment. You read it and you think, that’s it?
Here’s how the Book of Kings relates it to us. Towards the end of Sancherev’s siege, Chizkiah had taken ill, and messengers from the king of Babylon came in a delegation to visit him just after he was healed.
We don’t really hear anything about the conversation that ensued during that visit. The only thing we hear in the biblical text itself is that Chizkiah showed them around his palace. According to the text – and I’m quoting now – “...he showed them what was in his treasury, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his treasures; there was nothing in his house or dominion that Hezekiah didn’t show them.”
Now after this, Isaiah the prophet comes to Chizkiah, and asks him who the visitors were, and what they said to him.
Chizkiah replies, “They’re men that came from a land far away; they came from Babylon.”
Isaiah prods a bit more. He asks, “What did they see in your palace?”
Chizkiah responds, “They saw everything. There was nothing I didn’t show them.”
To that, Isaiah responds with these chilling words:
Shma devar-Hashem, hear the word of God.
Hineh yamim baim, behold the days are coming.
Venisa kol-asher beveytecha, when all that is in your house, and all that’s in your father’s house, everything they’ve stored up until this day,
bavelah, shall be carried off to Babylon.
Nothing shall be left, lo-yivater davar amar Hashem.
Umibaneicha asher yetzu mimcha, and of your sons that will descend from you,
yikachu, they too will be taken away.
Vehayu sarisim beheichal melech bavel, they’ll be servants in the palace of the King of Babylon.
So this is it, the first whispers of chorban, of destruction, in the Book of Kings.
Wasn't Chizkiah a Good King?I don’t know about you, but when I read these words, I feel like just doing a double-take. I mean, here’s Chizkiah, arguably God’s favorite king among all the Kings of Judah, with the exception of maybe King David himself.
He got rid of idolatry, he purified the Temple, he recommits the nation to God, he trusts in God fearlessly. And now, what was he doing, showing some people around the palace and this is the treatment he gets? I mean, it seems like a relatively trivial misdeed, doesn’t it? Why should this trigger “the worst of times”? How should we understand this?
Now, a similar problem can actually be raised about “the best of times,” so to speak. About the statement of the rabbis I mentioned to you before, that Chizkiah could have become Mashiach, the Messiah, had he only sang shira, songs of Thanksgiving to God, after the downfall of Sancherev.
There too, you know, in the scope of things, doesn’t that seem like a fairly trivial reason not to become the Messiah? Especially since – if I could just, you know, stick out my neck here for Chizkiah, for a little bit – I’d say this in his defense: You know, he actually was pretty good at praising God, on the whole. He did so at other times during his reign. In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 38, there is a record of his prayer of thanks after being healed from his sickness. And, you know, if it is praise through song that you are looking for, he actually does that, too. The Biblical text is pretty clear about that, as we will see in a few minutes.
It's just seems that maybe he didn’t do it, you know, precisely at the moment the Sages reference, after the defeat of Sancherev. So this whole condemnation of Chizkiah – if we can call it that, because he didn’t sing – it starts to sound just a little bit nitpicky. You know? I mean, he sang shira, but what, just not at the right time? That’s the whole problem? The Messianic Era gets delayed because of that?
And anyway, is it really true that singing shira, songs of thanksgiving to God, after a military victory is somehow the magic ticket to ushering in a Messianic Age? If so, what about Deborah and Barak? They miraculously defeated enemies of Israel – and Deborah did, in fact, sing songs of thanksgiving to God about it – and neither she nor Barak became the Messiah. Why not? And what about other great warriors of Israel – people like Joshua, people like Gidon – how come the Sages don’t intimate that they, too, could have been the Messiah if only they had sang songs of thanksgiving to God?
What Made Chizkiah Israel's "Almost" Messiah?So basically, here’s our issue: You know, it's the best of times, it's the worst of times. It's the knife-edge. But the balance seems to get shifted here by relatively trivial things. A missed song here. A poorly executed state visit there. It doesn’t seem like these “misses,” so to speak, warrant the kind of epic, momentous consequences that they seem to give rise to.
We’re missing perspective, the larger picture. What I’d like to do with you from here on in, is to look at this knife edge moment – the fall of Sancherev, the coming of the messengers from Babylon – in its larger context. We are going to pull back the zoom lens, and go back in time to explore Chizkiah’s story, more or less from the beginning. Who was this perplexing king, this “almost-Messiah”? What did he accomplish? What were his challenges? What situation did he inherit? How did he deal with it? We’re going to try to find out.
Studying the Story of Chizkiah in the BibleTo tell Chizkiah’s story, by the way, we are going to have to do a little bit of detective work. The Biblical account of his reign, as I mentioned to you, is given in three different Books: Melachim Bet, Second Kings, Yeshayahu, Isaiah, and Divrei HaYamim Bet, Second Chronicles. And because each book relates a part of the story, with different details and a different general emphasis, we’re going to have to use our judgement to weave together all that information to build those various strands into a single, flowing narrative. Let’s dive right in.
Long before Chizkiah, the nation of Israel had splintered into two separate kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin comprised the Southern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Judah, or Judea. And the other 10 tribes were known as the Northern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel, or sometimes just called “Ephraim.”
So, relations between these two kingdoms were rarely wonderful, but by the time Chizkiah’s father Achaz came onto the scene, a new low was reached: Civil War. As Chronicles, the Book of Kings, and the Book of Isaiah all relate, King Achaz faced a ruinous invasion from the Kingdom of Israel. Worse yet, the Israelite King, a fellow by the name of Pekach, had allied himself with a foreign power, the Kingdom of Aram. How to react to the attack from the Northern Kingdom would actually become the defining question of Achaz’s reign.
Militarily, Achaz was no match for the combined might of his adversaries. The Book of Isaiah relates that Achaz consulted the Prophet Isaiah, who reassured him that God was with him, and all he needed to do was wait out the threat. God would see to it, Isaiah prophesied, that Aram would be destroyed by an even larger power – the regional superpower, Assyria, Ashur.
Moreover, Isaiah reveals some earth-shattering news to Achaz. God is exceedingly displeased with the Northern Kingdom for having provoked this war between brothers and for the rest of their sins until now. The Northern Kingdom will meet its end. It, too, will fall into the hands of Assyria.
Isaiah offers Achaz a miraculous sign by which he would understand that God would really be by his side. But Achaz tells Isaiah that he doesn’t need for a sign; he implicitly trusts the word of God.
The Almighty Himself, though, gives Achaz that sign anyway. He says there’s going to be a child born, who Isaiah declares should be named Imanu-El, which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” By the time this child Immanuel grows old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, Isaiah tells him, the foreign armies will have left your land.
So time passes, and the forces of Aram and the Northern Kingdom continue their advance. Achaz remains frightened, and he makes a fateful and calamitous decision. Remember, Assyria was the nation that, according to Isaiah’s prophecy, was going to come and destroy Achaz’s enemy, Aram. But instead of waiting patiently, like Isaiah advised him, Achaz reaches out to the King of Assyria, Tiglat Pileser, and asks for an alliance with him. He’s trying to push things along.
So desperate is Achaz actually to form this alliance, that he resorts to outright bribery to try to make it happen. As the Book of Kings puts it, he takes all the gold and silver that he can find in the Temple and in the royal treasuries, and he sends it off to Assyria’s King. And to top it all off, he sends this obsequious message to Tiglat Pileser.
Avdecha uvincha ani, I am your servant and your son.
Aleh vehoshieni mikaf melech-aram, come out and save me from the hand of the King of Aram,
umikaf melech Yisrael, and the King of Israel,
hakomim alai, who rise up against me in war.
Now, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment here. You know, one might suppose that Achaz was fully within his rights to appeal to Assyria. After all, God Himself told him that Assyria was going to conquer Aram; Assyria was going to save him. So what’s wrong with helping that process along a little bit, with a little gold and silver?
But in actuality, there’s plenty wrong with helping out the process. Go back to the sign; the one that, ironically, Achaz said he didn’t need because he had such unshakeable faith in God. What was that sign? There’s this little baby you’re going to have. Wait for him to grow up. The baby is “Immanuel” – God is with us.
In effect, God is saying: As this child grows, so will God’s closeness to you grow. There’s no known way to turn a baby into a mature child overnight. Only the passage of time will do that. So it is with you, Achaz. The only thing you can and should do, Isaiah is telling him, is to wait. Things will be good, even if they’re scary now.
But waiting is a very stressful thing when you’re afraid. Achaz wants to do something, to be active. The prophecy assured him that Assyria will act as his savior, so he’s going to make sure this happens. A little gold, he reasons, can go a long way.
In doing this, though, Achaz fails to abide by the sign, he betrays his lack of trust in God. Isaiah had warned Achaz to stay away from foreign entanglements and to just sit tight. Achaz, though, doesn’t do this, he creates a direct alliance with Assyria, the force he believes that is destined to destroy his foe.
So what happens?
Well, in the end, Assyria does destroy Aram, just as Isaiah had prophesied; the Book of Kings tells us that. But, as the Book of Chronicles adds, this turns out to be a hollow victory, as far as Achaz is concerned. The alliance with Assyria ends up doing Achaz little good. Tiglat Pileser of Assyria eventually turns on Achaz and wages war against him, forcing Achaz into a situation even more desperate, maybe, than before. Evidently, bribes of gold and silver only take you so far.
Confronted with this horrific situation, Achaz shifts his loyalties and begins to worship, of all things, the god of Aram – the god of the foreign power that had originally besieged his kingdom. Maybe that god can help him, he reasons, with a whiff of desperation. Achaz closes the doors to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and he actually constructs an altar to the god of Aram on the Temple grounds.
All told, Achaz – desperate to control what he can’t really control – he is reduced to shifting from alliance to alliance; some earthly, some heavenly. His alliance with Assyria was his first mistake. His alliance, so to speak, with the God of Aram was his second mistake. By the time it’s all over, Achaz, seeking power, will have become virtually powerless. He will become an abject idolator, selling his soul, as it were, to the highest bidder. His ultimate degradation will be to sacrifice his own children to the pagan god Molech, passing them in fire upon Molech’s altar.
Here’s an interesting question to think about, in kind of summing up Achaz’s reign. The question has interesting symbolic significance, I’d say. If Achaz sacrificed some of his children to Molech, who were those children? We have no way to know for sure. But one of Achaz’s kids was the one who was that sign, the one given to him by God, the child, Immanuel. Was he one of the ones sacrificed on Molech’s altar? If so, Achaz, in his final debasement, would have thrown into the fire the very idea that God would be with his Kingdom.
And now, keep that thought in mind and ponder this, too. Chizkiah, one of Achaz’s surviving children, eventually becomes King. The question that will haunt Chizkiah throughout his reign is, what about Immanuel? After everything Achaz had done, after all that betrayal, would God still be with Chizkiah and his Kingdom? After all the water under the bridge, will the sign of Immanuel still hold sway?
Chizkiah Turns Back to GodAs King, Chizkiah turns his back on his father’s poisonous legacy. Chizkiah was raised in his father’s house, in a palace suffused with worship of foreign gods. He was a scion of a king whose ambition it was to be a vassal of Assyria. And Chizkiah turned his back on all of that.
Politically, he rebels against, and shuns, the Assyrian menace that Achaz “invited in,” so to speak, to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of Judah. And religiously, he destroys foreign influences, too. He becomes a smasher of his father’s idols. That alone would be enough to make his tenure as king impressive, indeed.
But the truth is, that little summary barely scratches the surface of Chizkiah’s breathtaking achievements. To really appreciate the significance of Chizkiah’s actions, you have to see the epic arc of what he’s doing. You have to see the patterns in his actions.
Chizkiah Restores the TempleThe tale of Chizkiah and his rule begins with a solitary choice; a choice that he makes without anyone else’s involvement, as it were. This first choice says everything about the the relationship he will carve out with the legacy of his father. Achaz had closed the doors of the Temple. And Chizkiah? Not only does he re-open those doors, but he adorns them with an overlay of gold, those doors that his father once sealed shut.
From there, Chizkiah moves on. He doesn’t just re-open the Holy Temple, he also sets about restoring it, purifying it from the state of degradation that it was in. For this, though, he will need others to buy into his vision.
As recorded in Chronicles, he gathers together the Kohanim and Leviim; he tells them how earlier generations had turned their back on God’s House, had caused the lights of the Menorah to go out, the incense offerings to stop – and that this was a betrayal of God. The political and military troubles that had befallen the Kingdom, he continues, all of them are traceable, somehow, to that betrayal. He tells them that it is his intention to recommit to a covenant with the God of Israel, and he asks them, the Kohanim and the Leviim, to join him in that.
And, they do. The Kohanim renovate the Temple, they purify it, and they fix the Temple’s broken and neglected vessels.
Having accomplished this, Chizkiah goes further. He gathers a wider circle of people to his side. He gathers the heads of the city of Jerusalem, the noblemen, as it were, and they offer communal sin offerings. They do this to express the collective remorse of the Kingdom for having abandoned God. And, after the chatat, after the sin offerings, Chizkiah and the city’s leaders brought olah offerings. Olot are offerings that are not really designed to express penitence, per se, but to express devotion to the Almighty. There’s a shift going on here; a shift from remorse and alienation from God, to closeness with the Divine instead.
As the olot began to be offered, we hear this in the Biblical text.
Ubeet hechel haolah hechel shir-Hashem,
and as the olah offerings began to be offered, Chizkiah and his cohort, they began to sing songs to God as well.
Vehashir meshorer vehachatzotzrot machtzrim hakol ad lichlot haolah,
and the songs were all sung along with the trumpets, all until the olot were finished.
And there it is, by the way: Songs of praise sung by Chizkiah and his cohort. Chizkiah did sing. The way Chronicles tells it, you know, Chizkiah really seems to be an amazing king; it’s hard to see how he could be faulted for not singing songs, he sang them right there. But let’s keep reading.
After those olot were offered, and after those songs were sung, Chizkiah widens his circle still further. He asks all the people this time to gather together and to bring todah offerings – thanksgiving offerings – to express their appreciation to God for being part of this incredible moment. And the people do it. Pay attention, by the way, to the trajectory of offerings here – chatat, olah, todah – they reflect a trajectory of emotion, too: Remorse, closeness, followed by thanks and joy.
Chronicles records that the people brought thousands of todah offerings, so many that it overwhelmed the Kohanims’ abilities to facilitate it all. So the Leviim, out of necessity, needed to help out. And finally, the text tells us, vayismach yechizkiyahu vechol-haam, Chikziah and the people rejoiced together.
So look at the concentric circles here. First, Chizkiah does something unilaterally: He opens the doors to the Temple. Then, he brings in the Leviim and the Kohanim; he persuades them to buy into his vision, and together they work assiduously and passionately to renovate a long-neglected Temple. And then, he extends the sense of joy and passion he has kindled with this group – he extends it to a larger circle, the elders of the city. And then a fourth and even larger circle, the entire people of the Kingdom.
As each circle gets brought in, not only does the scope of the people who are involved increase, but the quality of what they are doing deepens, too. The sense of joy and energy increases, becomes more ecstatic, more heartfelt. The sense of renaissance grows. It becomes wider, more real.
So, at this point you’d think we’ve reached the end of the line though, right? I mean, Chizkiah’s brought in the whole Kingdom of Judah. The circles can’t go any larger than that, right? But they do.
Here’s the very next thing Chronicles says.
Vayishlach Yechizkiyahu al-kol-Yisrael viYehudah,
and Chizkiah sent letters to all of Israel and Yehudah,
vegam-igrot katav al-Efrayim uMenasheh,
and he also sent letters to Ephraim and Menasheh,
lavo leveit-Hashem, to come to the House of God,
biYerushalayim, in Jerusalem,
laasot Pesach laHashem Elokei Yisrael, to offer the Pesach offering to God, the Lord of Israel.
Now, who exactly were those people that he was sending to and inviting into the Kingdom of Yehudah, for this Passover feast?
They were his Kingdom’s former rivals. Remember, in the days of Achaz, it was Ephraim and Menasheh, the Northern Kingdom, that had betrayed and attacked the Kingdom of Yehudah. The Book of Chronicles tells us that the losses from that conflict were just staggering. In Chizkiah’s days, just a few years later, the bitter memories of that war were still very much fresh and raw.
The Northern Kingdom had actually since been devastated; in the intervening years, Sancherev, the Assyrian king, he had conquered the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes, as Isaiah had foretold. (Yeah, that same Sancherev will soon become Chizkiah’s enemy, but we’re not there yet.)
In any case, many of that Northern Kingdom, they had been killed, and others had been exiled into Assyria; but some of the defeated multitudes had remained in the Land of Israel. And Chizkiah now reaches out to them, those former rivals, and invites them to come to the Land of Yehudah and to celebrate with him. Even after all the pain and suffering the Northern Kingdom’s war had brought on Yehudah, still, Chizkiah reasoned, they’re our brothers. Wouldn’t it be something if we could all celebrate together?
So Chizkiah sent word throughout the Lands of Ephraim and Menasheh, gently inviting them to come. It was not an easy task. The text tells us that many of those from Ephraim and Menashe who encountered Chizkiah’s messengers, they mocked them and laughed at the invitation to join with the Kingdom of Judah. For them, the centuries of division, anger, and resentment that separated the two kingdoms was too great to be surmounted. And, truth to be told, it wasn’t only the people from the Northern Kingdom who felt some reluctance, initially, towards Chizkiah’s initiative.
The text tells us that the effort at persuasion needed to work both ways. Chizkiah needed, as well, to persuade his own people – the people of Yehudah – to accept these former rivals, these stragglers from the Ten Tribes, into their land.
But he did. The people of Yehudah opened their doors and their land to their former rivals. And as for the other side? Well, not everyone mocked Chizkiah. Chronicles tells us that many from the tribes of Asher, Menashe, and Zevulun, in fact, did come to Jerusalem. They came to join as one people, celebrating Passover together.
The plan sounds wonderful, but there was also hard, cold reality to be reckoned with: The logistics for a communal celebration of this magnitude would be truly daunting. Jerusalem just wasn’t set up to host the vast multitudes that would be coming last-minute for this grand Passover event that Chizkiah envisioned. The Kohanim, they couldn’t purify themselves in enough numbers to be able to perform the Temple Service for that many people. There was no way for all these throngs of people to even get to Jerusalem in time for Pesach.
So the King and his counsel, they did something that was truly extraordinary. They decided to delay the celebration of Passover by a full thirty days. So you say: That’s astonishing; delay Pesach for the whole nation? Well, you’re in good company; the Talmud actually thinks it’s astonishing, too.
The Talmud debates exactly how it was done. Some say Chizkiah proclaimed a leap month at the very last minute; others say that he made innovative use of a precedent established in the Torah itself. The Book of Numbers tells us of individuals who are impure and therefore unable to offer the Pesach offering at its appointed time. Such people are given the chance to celebrate Pesach Sheni – a second Passover – exactly one month later.
Here, Chizkiah and his entourage, they seemed to create a kind of Pesach Sheni for the entire people. Whatever the exact mechanism, though, it was clearly a radical step, pushing back Passover by 30 days. Chizkiah did it to facilitate a historic unifying event: The first real communal Pesach since anyone could remember.
Now, as I mentioned to you earlier, to really appreciate what Chizkiah is doing, you need to see his actions against a large, historical canvas; and here is where that really comes into play, with this Pesach celebration that he’s organizing. It’s not just a whim, like: Wouldn’t this be a nice thing to do – get everybody together for a holiday? No. There was actually a very deep resonance here, reaching way back into history. Because ask yourself this: When else in Biblical history, did an entire kingdom celebrate one of the Torah’s three great festivals – Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot – exactly 30 days late?
It had happened once before. It had happened two hundred years earlier.
Studying Parallels to Chizkiah's Story in the BibleIt was the moment Ephraim and Menashe and the rest of the Ten Tribes first seceded from the union. Yes, 200 years before this, there was a new King of the Ten Tribes, a man by the name of Yeravam, worried that the religious unity of Israel might soon spell doom for his new hold on power.
He feared that if his people, the men, women, and children of the Ten Tribes, if they would spend their holidays worshiping alongside their brothers from Yehudah in the Temple in Jerusalem, it would eventually lead the two kingdoms to reunite, and to reconcile; and he, Yeravam, would be deposed.
So Yeravam took steps to make his people “religiously independent,” so to speak. He proclaimed a “new” holiday – a holiday modeled after Sukkot, but celebrated exactly one month after the Torah’s Sukkot. If his people didn’t celebrate at the same time as the people of Yehudah, Yeravam reasoned, they wouldn’t desire to journey to Jerusalem’s Temple to celebrate together with Yehudah.
And, Yeravam’s plan worked. The people of the Northern Kingdom, they stayed home and they celebrated in their own territory. And thus began the parting of ways between them and the people of Yehudah.
Soon enough, Yeravam even constructed a local Temple-replacement: Two golden calves, ominously reminiscent of the Golden Calf that Israel had worshipped in the desert. Why travel to the Temple, Yeravam exhorted his people, when you have these calves right here, and they can represent the God who took you out of Egypt? Worship here, he told them. Nothing beats convenience.
Now, two centuries later, Chizkiah would try his hardest to undo the damage of Yeravam. He would do it, interestingly enough, by retracing Yeravam’s disastrous actions; but in so doing, he would redeem those actions.
So, Chizkiah, like Yeravam, he would celebrate a holiday 30 days after its time. But whereas Yeravam did this to separate people from their brothers, Chizkiah did it to reunite brothers.
Yeravam conjured up a “second Sukkot” with absolutely no precedent in the Torah; Chizkiah worked within the Torah’s framework, following the precedent of Pesach Sheni. Yeravam delayed a holiday by thirty days to steer Ephraim and Menashe away from the Temple and towards some molten calves; Chizkiah delayed a holiday in order to draw Ephraim and Menashe to the Temple, and to steer them away from idolatry.
And steer them away from idolatry he did.
When the night of Passover finally came, it was, in the words of Chronicles, unlike any other Passover in history. Throngs from across the nation streamed to Jerusalem. On the way to the city, many came across idolatrous altars left over from the times of Achaz and they destroyed them. The people, they were becoming one nation again, serving One God.
To be fair, it wasn’t a perfect celebration. For example, many of those in attendance from Ephraim and Menashe, Yissachar and Zevulun – despite the extra 30 days – they hadn’t had the chance to properly purify themselves. These people, Chronicles tells us, they ate from the Pesach offering anyway, going against what appeared to be the strict letter of the law.
For his part, Chizkiah didn’t stand in their way. Instead, he turned to God and he prayed for them, expressing the hope that God, in His Goodness, would pardon them.
And so, the people celebrated together, all of them. The verse tells us,
vayaasu benei-Yisrael hanimtzeim biYerushalayim et-chag hamatzot shivat yamim,
and the people, they celebrated Pesach for seven days,
besimchah gedolah, with great joy.
Umehalelim laHashem yom beyom haleviim vehakohanim,
and they sang to God day by day, the Leviim, the Kohanim,
bichlei-oz-laHashem, with instruments to God.
After the Pesach feast was over, the text tells us that something remarkable happened: The people didn’t want to leave. They gathered together, and they decided they would all stay in Jerusalem together and keep the celebratory worship of God going. And so they did for another full seven days.
In the words of Chronicles:
vatehi simcha-gedolah biYerushalayim,
and there was great joy in Jerusalem,
ki miyomei shlomoh ben-David melech Yisrael lo chazot biYerushalayim,
for since the days of Solomon, David’s son, there was nothing like this in Jerusalem.
So we’ve seen the beginning of a pattern here. Actually, the beginning of two patterns.
Digging into the Biblical History of King ChizkiahOne pattern is that of expanding circles, expanding influence. First, Chizkiah acts alone, but then he persuades Leviim and Kohanim to join his cause. Then the noblemen. He then convinces the masses, the people of Judah, to come along, too. And finally, the circle expands even further when Chizkiah calls to people who, by rights, are really not even part of his natural constituency; people from the remnants of the Northern Kingdom. And each time the circle expands, the joy and the song become even greater.
So that’s the first pattern, but there’s a second pattern, too. The further you go in the Chizkiah story, the further back in time Chizkiah seems to be reaching. His earlier actions – the opening of the Temple doors, the renovating of a debased Temple, the recommitment of his people to God – these are actions that redeem the immediate past, the sins of his own father, Achaz.
But his next actions – when he invites the remnants of the Northern Kingdom to join him and his people in celebrating Pesach, when he pushes the celebration for 30 days, when he stops at nothing to make this celebration happen – these acts recall and redeem a more distant past, the breakup of the Kingdom itself, torn asunder some 200 years ago.
Chizkiah, he’s retracing and redeeming Yeravam’s original poisonous footsteps in the service of reuniting, rather than dividing, this Kingdom; in the service of banishing the dark shadows of Yeravam’s Golden Calves.
Those are the two patterns: Expanding circles of influence, on the one hand; and on the other hand, an expanding reach backwards in time. Chizkiah would marshall a larger and larger cohort of collaborators in the service of binding up the nation’s recent, and ancient, wounds.
The question now is: Have we seen the end of these patterns – or do they extend still further?
We’re going to find, I think, that we‘ve not yet seen the end of either of these two fascinating patterns. They have one last crescendo to reach. A crescendo of Messianic proportions.
Let’s take a look.
The Advent of SancherevThe very next series of events mentioned in the Book of Chronicles, after this glorious Pesach celebration, is the siege of Jerusalem that I mentioned to you back in the beginning of this video, instigated by the new king of Assyria, Sancherev.
The background to that siege was Chizkiah’s choice to rebel against Assyria – not just culturally or religiously, but politically and economically as well. As you might guess, the King of Assyria was not terribly pleased to hear that Chizkiah wasn’t going to be paying tribute to him anymore, and that Assyrian gods were no longer displayed or welcome in Jerusalem. And so, after conquering and exiling the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim, Assyria focused on Judea. That became its next target.
Assyria’s new King, Sancherev, attacks and destroys city after city in Yehudah, eventually arriving at Lachish, probably Judea’s second most important fortress, next to Jerusalem. Sancherev besieges Lachish, and, in a battle of immense ferocity, eventually conquers it.
To this very day, by the way, you can see the siege-ramp that Sancherev’s army built to mount the walls and overrun the city. Modern archeologists have found hundreds of arrowheads on the ramp, as well as caves nearby housing the remains of thousands of casualties from the siege.
With Lachish embattled, Chizkiah is now desperate. He sends messengers to Sancherev with apologies for his rebellion, and he promises to pay any amount that Sancherev names in return for suspending the military campaign against Judea.
A message comes back to Chizkiah. It’s going to be 300 bars of silver and 30 bars of gold. That’s Assyria’s price for peace.
So Chizkiah goes about trying to raise that exorbitant ransom. He cleans out the King’s treasury, but it's not enough. He cleans out the Temple’s treasury, but it's still not enough. Finally, he goes to the doors of the Temple – the doors that he had opened, the doors that he had overlaid with gold – and facing just no other choice, he strips the gold from them. And finally, he gathers that entire monumental ransom amount. He takes the whole pile of looted silver and gold, and he ships it off to Sancherev.
So, if you were Sancherev and you see the caravans coming to Lachish from Jerusalem, laden with all the gold and silver you demanded – you count it up and it's all there – what would you do next?
Well, you’d probably pack up your gear, turn your troops around, and head home. I mean, that was the deal, right?
But Sancherev doesn’t do that. You know, a generation before, gold and silver wasn’t enough for Tiglat Pileser, Assyria’s previous king; he attacked Achaz anyway even after getting all the gold and silver. And now, it would be the same thing with Sancherev: I’ll take your gold and silver, but that’s not going to settle things between us. Sancherev is still going to come after Chizkiah.
So here’s what happens next. An Assyrian delegation, headed by a man named Ravshakeh, shows up at the gates of Jerusalem with a curious message for Chizkiah. Here’s how the text puts it.
Vayomer aleihem Ravshakeh, and Ravshakeh said to them,
imru-na el-Chizkiyahu, deliver this message to Chizkiyahu,
ko-amar hamelech hagadol melech ashur, thus says the great King, the King of Assyria,
mah habitachon hazeh asher batachta? What is this trust that you seem to have?
You know, it’s fascinating; Sancherev, he’s got his money, but that just isn’t enough for him. It's almost like he’s offended by Chizkiah’s rebellion, he wants to figure it out. It's like: What got into your head that you were crazy enough to defy me? Because, if you think about it, militarily, what Chizkiah did, it really was crazy. So Sancherev, he suspects some kind of hidden alliance.
Ravshakeh shouts his message to Chizkiah at the walls of Jerusalem: Al-mi batachta ki maradeta bi, in whom do you trust that you had the temerity to rebel against me?
The logical answer would have to be Egypt. I mean, it’s the nearest regional power. So Ravshakeh continues and says: “I know who you’re trusting… it’s that lousy, untrustworthy Pharaoh, isn’t it!”
Egypt, as you may recall from the Book of Exodus, it was the land of the horse and the chariot. Ravshakeh suspects that maybe Pharaoh made a deal with Chizkiah to supply him with horses and chariots. Maybe that would explain why Chizkiah had the guts to rebel.
So Ravshakeh makes this bold taunt: Veatah hitarev na et-adoni et-melech ashur, my master, the King of Assyria, proposes a bet with you. Veetnah lach alpayim susim im-tuchal latet lach rochvim aleihem, I’ll supply you with 2,000 horses if you’re able to put riders upon them.
You know, it’s like: If it’s horses that propelled you to go to Egypt, hey, I’ve got horses for you. You can’t even find riders for all the horses I can give you!
Ravshakeh continues. I’m not going to get into all of his language here, but suffice it to say that he taunts Chizkiah; in modern parlance, we would call it “trash talking.” And you have to understand, all this back and forth, it’s happening in public. Ravshakeh and his Assyrian military delegation, they’re shouting all this at Chizkiah’s representatives, but there are scores of ordinary citizens standing on those walls of Jerusalem, too, and everyone’s listening to the give and take here.
So one of Chizkiah’s representatives, a man by the name of Elyakam, he screams back to Ravshakeh. He says, could you please speak in Aramaic to us, and not in Hebrew, the Judeans’ language. I mean, everyone on the wall can hear you!
Elyakam is basically saying: Look, there are women and children here. Could you please speak in a language the masses can’t hear? You’re just frightening everybody.
But Ravshakeh doesn’t care. He screams back at Elyakam: Haal adoneicha veeleicha shelachani adoni ledaber et-hadevarim haeleh, you think you’re the audience? You think my master sent me just to you, just to your master Chizkiah, to speak these words? Halo al-haanashim hayoshvim al-hachomah, no, I’m talking to the people on the wall. Leechol et-tzoatam lishtot et-meimei ragleihem imachem, those people on the wall, the ones reduced to eating their own excrement from famine, the ones reduced to drinking their own urine; that’s who I’m talking to along with you.
To get the real “in-your-face” sense of Ravshakeh’s taunts, you’d have to use the English slang for excrement and urine here. But look, this is a family show, so let’s just politely say that Ravshakeh ignores Elyakam’s request to change languages. He continues to scream in Hebrew.
He yells at the starving, besieged masses: Don’t let Chizkiah trick you! Hahatzel hitzilu elohei hagoyim ish et-artzo? Did the gods of other nations we conquered save them? No, and neither will your God save you.
King Chizkiah's Curious Pray to GodThe King tore his clothes in mourning and sent word to the prophet Isaiah. Perhaps, Chizkiah said, the Living God would hear the words of Ravshakeh and respond to these vicious and blasphemous taunts.
But then Chizkiah says something that makes you maybe raise an eyebrow. He says in his prayer to the Almighty these curious words: God, Your children, bou banim ad-mashber, they’re like a woman who’s in the process of giving birth, and they’ve gotten to this crucial moment in labor. Vekoach ein leled, but she doesn’t have enough strength to successfully deliver the child. What a strange thing to say.
You know, if I were Chizkiah at that moment, I might have compared my Kingdom to someone who had fallen deathly ill. But a woman in childbirth? I don’t know, not so much.
It may well be that a woman in childbirth is in danger; but the situation she’s in, is really a joyous one if you think about it. I mean, if she can only manage to complete the birth process, things will be great. Why would Chizkiah use that analogy to describe his people’s predicament?
Unless… unless that’s precisely the situation he thinks they’re in.
Chizkiah seems to be saying something like this: The woman who is having trouble giving birth, it looks like she might be doomed. But that’s not really her whole story. If she’s successful in delivering this child, a whole new life is ushered into the world. It's the most joyous thing imaginable for her, if she can only successfully make it through.
And so it is for us. We look like we might be doomed too. We don’t have enough power to do this on our own. But if You, God, if You can lend us the strength to succeed, there’ll be a whole new life here. A new age of incomparable joy will be ushered in. We need You on our side.
A Knife-Edge in Chizkiah Story'sChizkiah seems to be talking about the knife-edge. It's the best of times, it's the worst of times. We might be doomed, he seems to be saying, but if we’re saved – well then, it's a whole new world. As dark as it seems, this moment could really become the “best of times.”
Chizkiah turns to his countrymen and makes a choice. He tells them that Jerusalem will continue to defy Sancherev, against all odds. He cuts off the springs outside the city to deprive the Assyrians of water. He builds a tunnel through rock to pipe water into Jerusalem. With these measures, the people of Jerusalem are going to withstand the siege as long as they possibly can. And then, then he gathers all the people into Jerusalem’s public square and he declares this to them.
Chizku veimtzu, be strong and courageous, he says.
Al tiru veal-techatu mifnei melech ashur, do not be afraid and do not be dismayed as we face the King of Assyria.
Umilifnei kol-hehamon asher-imo, as we face his vast armies.
Ki-imanu rav meimo, because in truth we have a Greater Force with us than he has with him.
Imo ziroa basar, you know, he has the force of flesh and blood, but
imanu Hashem Elokeinu leazirenu, but with us is the Lord our God to help us.
Ulehilachem milchamotenu, and to fight our battles.
Vayisamchu haam al-divrei Yechizkiyahu melech-Yehudah, and the people relied on the words of Chizkiyahu.
Listen to what Chizkiah is saying to his countrymen: Chizku – be strong and courageous. Listen to those words; it’s his name, Chizkiah – “God is my strength.” You know, his name, it really expresses in just a single word what he’s telling his people right now.
It’s not crazy for them to stand fast in the face of such overwhelming odds. We’re strong, he tells them, but not for any of the reasons advanced by Ravshakeh. It’s not because Egypt is on our side. They’re not. We didn’t promise Pharaoh allegiance in return for chariots and horsemen. No. We’re strong because imanu Hashem Elokeinu, because God is with us.
But take those words apart. Shorten them. Imanu-Hashem Elokeinu, he says. Imanu-Hashem Elokeinu. Imanu-El. That’s the name his brother was given, the child that was a sign from God to show that it would all be okay. Chizkiah was invoking that sign, the sign that his father had abandoned.
Chizkiah, like his father before him, was facing an invasion, and he had his back pressed to the wall. But Chizkiah would face the invader with a kind of confidence that makes little sense to those who understand only the might that comes from geopolitical alliances. It’s a kind of confidence that Ravshakeh does not understand. It’s a kind of confidence that his own father, Achaz, would not understand.
Chizkiah was staking everything on “Immanu-El”. And, in fact, God was with him.
Sancherev arrives at the walls of Jerusalem with well over 100,000 men and a full complement of siege weaponry. But that very night, an angel of God ventures forth into the Assyrian camp and delivers a silent blow. Dawn breaks, but Sancherev’s troops never wake up from the night’s sleep. Sancherev, confronted with the fact that his vast army is no more, flees back to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, where, as it happens, he is later killed by assassins.
Now, here’s the thing. Chronology is everything here. The Book of Chronicles places these events we’ve just talked about – the siege of Sancherev and Chizkiah’s miraculous victory – as happening right after the glorious, unified Passover celebration that Chizkiah had pulled off. So here’s the question I want to consider with you.
We saw some patterns that had animated the events of Chizkiah’s reign, two patterns, to be precise: Ever expanding concentric circles, and an ever expanding reach backwards in history. The circles.
At each stage, Chizkiah was persuading a larger and larger cohort of people to join him in his celebration. Indeed, the song and joy of each stage was even greater than that before it. And the reach backward in history at each stage, Chizkiah was healing a wound that reached back further and further into his nation’s past. He was fixing things.
I want to suggest to you, that these patterns actually extend even further, and animate the next great story in Chizkiah’s reign – the story of the King’s last showdown against Sancherev at the walls of Jerusalem.
Let’s take a look.
Chizkiah's Redemption of Biblical HistoryTwo patterns: Expanding circles of celebration, and an expanding reach back into history. Let’s take the second of these patterns and explore where it might lead us.
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 mass 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.
Chizkiah's Missing Song?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 10 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 Failed Messianic EraThe 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, 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.
What Was the Latent Potential in the Song at the Sea?I talked about this in an Aleph Beta series we put out around Pesach time; if you get a chance, go back and take a look. In that series, I argued that there’s evidence that the Exodus, as it actually came to pass, was actually a Plan B or a Plan C version of what could have been. In the Exodus as it actually took place, Egypt, the adversary of the Hebrews, was destroyed. But that wasn’t Plan A for the Exodus.
The original hope was that Egypt would become convinced – either through the beginnings of the plagues, or somehow else – of the reality of God, of a Father in Heaven that they and the Hebrews share. In Plan A – the Exodus that “could have been” – Egypt agrees to let the slaves go because they come to understand this as the right thing to do. In Plan A, as it were, Egypt isn’t destroyed; rather, these adversaries of the Hebrews, they actually change their stripes to become full partners of their former servants.
So, would Plan A have looked like, had it actually been realized?
Well, in Plan A, Israel still crosses the Sea of Reeds with the water splitting to allow them through. And in Plan A, archers, horsemen, and chariots of Egypt, they’re still right there alongside the Hebrews. But instead of pursuing the Hebrews with intent to destroy them, those archers, horsemen, and chariots, they’re an honor guard, they’re there to celebrate, not to impede, the journey of the Israelites. The Egyptians are there to join with their former slaves and escort them on the beginnings of a journey to the Promised Land. In this more idealized version of the Exodus, the Song of the Sea still happens, but Egypt actually accompanies Israel in that song.
Alas, in the Exodus as it actually came to pass, this didn’t happen. The chariots and horsemen opposed Israel, rather than joining in celebration with them. Which means, really, that the procession that departed Egypt, with all its miracles, was really just a shadow of what might have been. What might have been – another nation, a possible foe, joining hands with Israel as a partner, proclaiming together the oneness of a Father they both share – that vision would have to wait for another day to be realized.
This, was that other day.
The Hope for a Jewish Messianic AgeIn Chizkiah’s time, two nations, two great actors on the world stage – Judea and Babylon – had come achingly close to reliving the original potential of the Exodus. This was the last concentric circle. This was the chance to go all the way back in time, to the dawn of the nation, to redeem the potential of a song that had been sung at the very first moments of Israel’s history – a song that should have, that could have, included the beautiful harmony of a duet, a chorus.
This was the opportunity to bring the world-at-large into the Song at the Sea. When the Sages speak of Chizkiah being a near Messianic figure, I think this is what they were talking about. The potential of that moment almost gets realized; but not quite.
The text in Isaiah states that when Chizkiah sees these messengers from Babylon coming, vayismach aleihem Chizkiyahu, Chizkiah rejoices at them.
Something subtle is happening here. Chizkiah, the one whose entire tenure as king is marked by simchah, by joy – he is the one who rejoices with his people at purifying the Temple, he is the one who rejoices with Ephraim and Menashe in the great communal Pesach offerings – so, here Chizkiah is, after the defeat of Sancherev, he’s greeting these messengers, and he feels simcha, joy, once again. But there is something problematic this time with that joy.
If you look closely at the text, you’ll find that he doesn’t really rejoice “with” the messangers; it doesn’t say vayismach imahem Chizkiah. Instead, the word is aleihem; he rejoices “upon” the messangers, as strange as that sounds, or “at” them, or “about” them. Grammatically, in the sentence the messengers are objects of joy rather than co-subjects, co-celebrants along with Chizkiah.
It seems that somehow he misses the chance to share the moment with these messengers. He shows them around his palace, all his gold, all his silver. And Isaiah castigates him for this. What had Chizkiah been thinking? Why had he been rejoicing “at” the appearance of these messengers?
Chizkiah's Failure to Become the MashiachIt seems that he was courting them in some kind of way. If you’re Judea, you don’t normally merit a state visit from a power like Babylon. It’s an unexpected and welcome honor. The Book of Chronicles calls Chizkiah’s failure here a failure of pride. There was something to be proud of in the appearance of these messengers. It’s a sign that your kingdom has come of age.
And, you know, if you’re the King of Judea, it’s not a bad thing at all to have Babylon impressed with you. An ally to the southeast could be useful. Perhaps it’s God’s will, you reason to yourself, that neighboring kingdoms should now be impressed with you, in the aftermath of all these miracles. Maybe it’s God’s way of taking care of your kingdom, you might say. And so, Chizkiah shows them around his palace, giving them a tour of the kingdom’s treasures. He’s searching, apparently, for an ally.
Isaiah, though, sees this as a disaster. He tells Chizkiah that it’s only going to be a matter of time now until Babylon is back. And when they return, they will not return as friends. They will haul away those riches you’ve shown them, and they’ll take your descendants as servants as well.
But here’s a question I think we need to ask: Why was that warranted, really? So Chizkiah courted the messengers; big deal. Was Chizkiah’s failure, if you can even call it that, of such gravity that it deserved such calamitous repercussions?
The answer, I think, is that it’s not really about what’s “deserved” or “undeserved.” This wasn’t even really a punishment. It was, in a way, just a natural flow of consequences.
Look at the geopolitical situation out there in the world. Until now, until this point in history, you had powers – Egypt, Aram, Edom – you had powers, but not empires. Now, though, something new was happening out there in the world. Assyria had become a monster, the greatest imperial power in world history to that point. It gobbled up surrounding states and exiled their inhabitants. Soon, Babylonia would occupy center stage, and then Persia, followed by Greece, and then, finally, Rome would come. Each of these were, or would be, massive powers.
Comparatively, the Kingdom of Judah just didn’t rate. It couldn’t play in that sandbox. When Judah was at full strength, these other powers would eclipse it by orders of magnitude, but all the more so now that most Judean fortresses had been conquered, save for Jerusalem.
What I’m getting at is in the natural course of events, Israel has no independent destiny in this emerging Age of Empires. Best case scenario: You become a vassal state, a client of some larger conglomerate. Worst case scenario: You get conquered and your citizens are scattered or sold as slaves.
So, what, then, is the role of Israel in such a world? In an Age of Empires, is the prospect of an independent, thriving Israel doomed to failure?
The answer is: Not necessarily.
To maintain independence, Israel must be clear about its source of strength.
Israel's Destiny to Share God's GloryIsrael has a destiny. It’s a nation that’s designed to stand for the idea that there is more to the world than can be seen with the eye or touched with one’s hand. Or, in the words of Shakespeare: “There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt in your philosophy, Horatio.” There is a transcendent force that interacts with our world, a force that cares and involves itself in events large and small. This force cares about what happens down here because it’s our Parent in the Sky. This force is our Creator.
The destiny of Israel is to stand for that idea, and to help make it known to others. When Israel stands by this destiny, it is strong; it has a constructive, independent role to play with reference to the empires that surround it. It is strong not just because it can rely on Heavenly aid, although that is true, as well; it’s strong because the nation is trading with a different kind of currency, as it were, than those around it.
In other words, yeah, as a potential ally, Israel may not offer an empire much at all in terms of additional force or might. It doesn’t have much to give in that currency. But it can offer something else, of great value. It can offer understanding. Understanding that there is more in this world than meets the eye.
Transcendence is real, too. It can offer a living, breathing example of what it looks like for a nation to be in relationship with the transcendent force that seems to dance at the edges of mankind’s material existence. And when Israel does this, it can successfully live alongside empires. It can be valued by empires. Not because in a dog-eat-dog world it offers another nation a better chance at continuing to live, but because it offers nations a reason to continue to live. It offers meaning.
What happens, then, when a nation comes to Israel lidrosh et hamophet, to understand the meaning of some event that bespeaks a transcendent involvement in Israel’s affairs of state? Who was this king for whom the natural order of the world was getting upended? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
So, you know, if you’re Israel’s king in that moment, it’s your job to point heavenward. It’s your job to open one last concentric circle and invite these people in. You talk to them, you tell them something like this: You know, what happened with Sancherev’s spectacular defeat, it’s the work of our Father. And this isn’t just our own, parochial Father; it’s your Father, too. This is a song you also can learn to sing. Join your voices with ours!
But what happens when you don’t do that? What happens when you unwittingly greet a hand extended in spiritual curiosity as if it were a hand extended in mere strategic alliance? When a nation is seeking meaning, and you show them gold and silver instead? When you do that, you’re pointing to a strength that’s not really your strength. You’re betraying your own name, Chizkiah – My Strength is God – and trading it in for something far more prosaic, far more ordinary.
You’re unwittingly making yourself into just another nation playing the game of geopolitics and power. And if that’s the game you’re playing, then that’s the game the empire will play with you, too. It’s like: Look, you know, we came to check out this inexplicable plague. We thought that something mysterious was going on. But, you know, if you’re playing the regular game of alliance and strategy, well, I guess we’ll just follow your lead. Those Judeans? Yeah, they defeated Sancherev’s army at the gates of Jerusalem. Strange, right? Some weird plague. Just goes to show you, you can never be too careful with hygiene.
Well, you know, if that’s the message, Isaiah says, if your strength is in gold and silver, well, empires, they take gold and silver and they run. All you are is a regional power, and a small one at that. It will only be a matter of time until you’re swallowed whole.
Years later, Babylonia would indeed be back – not as friends, but as conquerors. And when they finally do conquer Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah would compose the Book of Eicha to lament that terrible loss. In it, he would evoke images of the Splitting of the Sea, but with a tragic, alternative ending. Why did Jeremiah do that?
The Meaningful Backstory Behind Jeremiah's LamentationsWe’re now, maybe, in a position to understand. There was a backstory behind that imagery. In the days of Chizkiah, generations before there was a moment that had occurred that evoked the Splitting of the Sea – and the failure to fully realize the potential of that moment somehow became a harbinger of the destruction of Jerusalem generations later.
Vayosha Hashem et Chizkiyahu miyad Sancherev. God had saved Chizkiah from the hand of Sancherev. Sancherev had been defeated in a middle-of-the-night mysterious plague. Chizkiah had told his people al tira’u, do not to fear. The myriad horses and chariots of Assyria that Ravshakeh had boasted about, they would be vanquished in one sudden moment, just as Egypt’s had been, so long ago.
In the aftermath of that glorious moment, something was missing. The shared song was missing. And that moment became a knife-edge. The joyous song that was never sung at the walls of Jerusalem became the silent herald of a mournful dirge – the somber melody we know as Eicha.
What does this story mean to us, today? Each of you would perhaps have your own answer to that question. For what it’s worth, I’ll give you my own, personal answer. It has to do with destiny.
Fulfilling Expectations of the Jewish Messianic AgeYou know, I find it fascinating that the very same events that we mourn as chorban, as destruction, came close to being the very opposite of that; they came close to being the moments that heralded the Messianic era itself.
I guess I’d say this: If Tisha B’Av is a day on which we mourn tragedy, it’s also a day on which we must, at least, consider and weigh tragedy’s opposite – the destiny we might have achieved, the destiny we’re still meant to achieve.
You know, back when I was a kid, I didn’t think much about our destiny as a people. I kind of imagined that there was a great chalice in the sky. If you did a good deed, it went into the chalice. And if you did something bad, a big Heavenly Hand would take something out of the chalice. Andif the chalice should ever become filled with enough good deeds – then presto! The Messiah would come.
I mean, it’s strange. But as a kid, you know, I heard about Torah learning, about observance, but no one ever really told me that all of that, it could help me achieve something; that I was meant, as a human being and as a member of the Jewish People, to create and to develop a relationship with God. That if we managed to build this relationship with integrity, it would be a model that would have value in the world. It seems like such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to miss. It’s the forest that’s so easily glossed over in search of the trees.
Chizkiah began his heroic trajectory as King by looking around him and seeing that forest. His most basic commitment, the text tells us, was to renew his people’s relationship with God. There was a covenant between God and His People and that covenant was in ruins.
Chizkiah worked – personally first at first, and then with larger and larger groups of people – to breathe life into that covenant, into that relationship. To burnish it, to deepen it, to make it shine. The product of his success, at each stage, was a sense of serenity, a sense of shared satisfaction. A sense of joy. That joy turned out to be infectious.
But Chizkiah didn’t go far enough.
I guess the question is: Can we?