Tag Archives: Assyria

The Placement of Faith in Precarious Times

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
    who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
    and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
    or seek help from the Lord.
Isaiah 31:1 (NIV)

The political situation in Isaiah’s day was precarious. Assyria was a giant, regional super power bent on conquest and destruction. The Assyrian army was on the move, swallowing up every city and nation in its way. The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were now in Assyria’s sights. The Assyrian war machine was large, well-trained, well-equipped and utterly ruthless. The Assyrians didn’t just invade, they destroyed. Assyrian kings would repeatedly inscribe the phrase, “I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire.”

If the Assyrians attacked a city and the city refused to surrender, the men leading the defense of their target would be rounded up to be publicly humiliated. Some could look forward to being flayed alive, their skins hung out for public spectacle. Others could look forward to being impaled alive on stakes or perhaps buried alive. If you approached a city in Isaiah’s day and  found a pile of dismembered limbs by the gate, you knew that the Assyrians had been there. It is no wonder that Isaiah and the people of Judah were in a bit of a panic. The political winds were blowing in the direction of Egypt, believing that an alliance with Egypt would save them from Assyrian devastation.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet questions the object of his fellow citizens faith. They were depending on Egypt to save them. They were bowing to foreign Gods in desperation for salvation. Isaiah reminds them that their trust should be in the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah predicts that Assyria’s ultimate fall would not come about from a “human sword.”

Throughout God’s Message there is a recurring theme. The ebb and flow of power throughout history is subject to a larger context. There is a Great Story that is being told in an ever-expanding universe. As with all great epics, the forces of good and evil, creation and chaos, are in constant conflict. I can focus on the temporal circumstance, or I can trust the Author of Life with the storyline. Isaiah was suggesting the latter, and predicting that the Author was going to show up in a eucatastrophic climax to this particular chapter of history. It might seem a bit naive given the grave circumstances. We’ll learn in the coming week or two how things played out.

This morning I’m thinking about the very real fear and anxiety being felt by people and nations in today’s world. I listen to the feelings of people in the media, on social media, and in casual personal conversations. We are witnessing a fascinating time of tremendous change. There is a tremendous amount of fear, and fear leads us to think, speak, and act in atypical ways. It seems to me that Isaiah’s ancient message to the people of Judah resonates even today. We are living in precarious times, as well.

Where will I find hope?

Where will I place my faith?

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Pondering the Prophetic

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
    the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
    like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
    or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
    there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
Isaiah 13:19-20 (NIV)

Prophecy is a part of the human experience. It is a mysterious thing, yet even our great stories are filled with it:

  • The weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
  • The otherwise prophetically inept Professor Trelawney utters the  prophetic words that speak of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s  connected fate.
  • Aragorn cites the words of Malbeth the Seer in making his fateful decision to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

I find it fascinating that our greatest stories quite regularly contain an element of the prophetic. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story. The prophetic is a mysterious part of our human experience.

Reading and interpreting the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrews requires knowledge, context, and discernment. The writing of the ancient prophets like Isaiah point to things that were, things that are, and things that yet will be. They are often woven together in a stream of poetic imagery that can be, and often is, misunderstood as we try to separate the strands.

As I attempt to understand the weave of prophetic strands in today’s chapter, there are two themes on which I find myself meditating this morning.

First, God was not opposed to utilizing kingdoms like Babylon and Assyria, to accomplish His purposes. This is not an isolated to occurrence. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the Great Story. From Balaam’s donkey, to the mysterious Melchizedek, to Rahab the prostitute, to the evil King Herod whose tax-raising census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, God uses a diverse and motley cast of characters and nations to drive the story line of history. This raises a number of fascinating questions. This morning, however, I find myself reminded not to try to put God in a box that He has not defined.

Second, I’m thinking about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, which are very visible today. While God used the Babylonian kingdom (despite their wickedness) and wove them into narrative in interesting ways, Isaiah’s prophecy is quite clear about the ultimate end (see the verses above). The ancient city of Babylon was, by all accounts, an amazing city. During two periods of history it was the largest city in the world. The hanging gardens there were among the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” But, within a few hundred years of Isaiah’s writing, the words of his prophecy would be fulfilled.

The ruins of Babylon are located just outside of Baghdad in Iraq, and can still be seen today. Despite Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to resurrect the glory old city, Babylon remains “a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris.” (Wikipedia)

In a time of political upheaval and present uncertainty, I find myself this morning taking quiet solace in the larger narrative of the Great Story, in the realization that God weaves many diverse Peoples and political regimes into that narrative, in the mystery of the prophetic, and in the present evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words.

 

October

“I am against you,”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“I will burn up your chariots in smoke,
    and the sword will devour your young lions.
    I will leave you no prey on the earth.
The voices of your messengers
    will no longer be heard.”
Nahum 2:13 (NIV)

U2 rose to fame during my college years. The iconic band that now fills stadiums and cuts deals with Apple to release their CDs was just an avant garde group of punks from Ireland when I first heard of them. One of the early songs that was extremely popular on my campus is now largely forgotten in their repertoire. It is quite simple and short:

October
And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care

October
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on…and on…

I thought about that song this morning as I mused on Nahum’s prophesied fall of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire (a.k.a. the Neo-Assyrian empire) was one of three empirical legacies of the Assyrians. It was their final empire which lasted just 300 years, roughly from 910-612 B.C. It is ranked 119 out of 214 historic world empires on Wikipedia’s charts.

Nahum was a prophet of doom for the Assyrians. Though they had risen to heights of regional power they were now to be silenced once and for all. And, Nahum’s prediction came true when an alliance of their vassals rose up to destroy the capitol city of Nineveh a few years later.

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But You go on…

As a lover of history, I often think about the ebb and flow of human kingdoms and empires. As the Great Story plays out from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, there is a constant rise and fall of kingdoms and empires. Hundreds of them. How many of them thought that they were it. How many claimed to be the greatest? How many claimed that they would never fall? How many rulers claimed divinity or divine right?

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But You go on…

This morning, I’m humbled. I am suspicious of any claims of divine right, invincibility, or superiority whether that come from an ISIS propaganda video or a presidential candidate’s propaganda ad. There is a larger story being told, and the kingdoms of this world are all merely playing their part.

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But You go on.

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 2

Star of Bethlehem, Magi - wise men or wise kin...
Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.” Matthew 2:1 (MSG)

It’s interesting to read this passage in light of our recent journey through Jeremiah’s story. Five hundred years before the events in today’s chapter, the people of Israel had been taken into exile. Where? To Babylon and Assyria, in the east. Those taken into exile were the best and the brightest of Israel‘s young men who, in some cases, rose to positions of leadership and influence.

Now, hundreds of years later, a celestial phenomena sends these foreign scholars and astronamers searching for its meaning. How did they know this event in the heavens signaled the birth of “the king of the Jews?” Since there is no record of the prophetic sign in the scripture, it’s most likely that a prophetic word was given through one of the Israelites in exile hundreds of years before. Perhaps it was Daniel or one of his friends. We may never know who it was, but we know that these many years later God weaves the tragic events of the exile into the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. The scholars from the east become a beautiful word picture. Among the very first to recognize the messiah and worship him were non-Jewish gentiles. Even at his birth, Jesus was gathering the nations.

Today, I’m encouraged reading the story of the Magi. It’s a great reminder that God is in control. He weaves the threads of past events into our present circumstances to accomplish his purpose. Like the Magi, my journey is simply a thread in a much larger tapestry.

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Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 19

The Angel of the Lord. And it so happened that that very night an angel of God came and massacred 185,000 Assyrians. When the people of Jerusalem got up next morning, there it was—a whole camp of corpses! 2 Kings 19:35 (MSG)

When we left the previous chapter, the city of Jerusalem was beseiged by the dreaded Assyrian army and the envoys of the Assyrian king were trash-talking to King Hezekiah's representatives. I mentioned that the key to breaking a seige was perseverance (in the face of a painful season with little provision), a strong will (to stand against the arrogant taunts the enemy continually spoke to break you psychologically), and a Deliverer. In today's chapter, we read (a' la Paul Harvey), the rest of the story.

King Hezekiah went first to consult with God's prophet, Isaiah who assures the King that God is not going to let the Assyrian King take Jerusalem. If you want to read more specifically regarding God's message through Isaiah concerning Assyria, read Isaiah 10:5-19 and Isaiah 37. King Hezekiah responds by going to the temple, bows down before God, and praying like he'd never prayed before.

The next day the Assyrian camp was littered with 185,000 corpses. The Deliverer, the Angel of the Lord, brought about a miraculous and unforeseen outcome. The event of the Assyrian army's demise was reported by other historians of antiquity. The Greek historian Herodatus wrote of the event and explained that bubonic plague had rapidly spread through the camp. It brings to mind the Angel of the Lord spreading the plagues through Egypt in delivering the Israelites from captivity in Egypt.

I love the story of Jerusalem's dramatic and miraculous deliverance. At the same time, I think about the seasons of life in which I feel beseiged on all sides. It's perplexing why God dramtically delivers in some moments, and remains agonizingly silent in others. I look back, and I understand that seasons of drought and pain have ultimately produced good things in my life like perseverance, reliance, wisdom, faith, endurance, and humility. Experience has taught me that God's purpose is at work in my pain.

Nevertheless, I prefer those moments when God miraculously delivers us from our troubles.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and aussiegall

Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 18

Then he stepped forward and spoke in Hebrew loud enough for everyone to hear, "Listen carefully to the words of The Great King, the king of Assyria: Don't let Hezekiah fool you; he can't save you. And don't let Hezekiah give you that line about trusting in God, telling you, 'God will save us—this city will never be abandoned to the king of Assyria.' Don't listen to Hezekiah—he doesn't know what he's talking about. 2 Kings 18:28-31a (MSG)

Taking a step back and looking at today's chapter and you find a great example of the ancient art of seige warfare. Seige warefare has been a lucrative enterprise throughout history and the Assyrians would have easily made the all-star team. It's bullying and extortion on a national level. You simply amass a large army, surround a weak city, and then demand a huge sum of money to back down. If the city refuses, you destroy it mercilessly (the Assyrians were known to hack the limbs off their victims and leave piles of disembodied arms and legs outside the city gate as a calling card). If the city was too big or well fortified, you simply waited and let the inhabitants of the city slowly starve to death and implode because you've cut off their supply lines. Of course, you make sure a few survivors make it out and escape to nearby towns so that the news of your terror psychologically begins to intimidate the next city on your list.

Part of successful seige warfare was the application of psychological pressure by continually taunting the surrounded city. It was the ancient form of talking smack that you still see on the football field or basketball court. If you can get inside your opponent's head, you have the edge.

I believe we all have experienced, even to a minimal degree, a feeling of being beseiged. It could be bullying on the playground, being the victim of the neighborhood gang, or being singled out and verbally beat down by a parent, teaching, coach or authority figure. I think that our spiritual enemy uses the same tactics: surround, cut off, harass, intimidate, and get inside the head.

The answer to a seige is perseverance, strong will, and a Deliverer.