The Assyrian Attack
In the eighth century B.C., hundreds of years after Moses’ words were written down, Isaiah cried out concerning the rise of a powerful empire to the northeast of Israel. In his day, the Lord was about to use this nation to totally devastate Palestine in exact fulfillment of Moses’ words. This is what Isaiah predicted:
“The Lord shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah, even the king of Assyria.”
The longsuffering of God had reached the breaking point. The northern kingdom of Israel (also called “Ephraim” from the name of its most politically active tribe) was so entrenched in evil and idolatry that there was quickly becoming no alternative to judgment, which would ultimately lead to complete and total destruction at the hands of a foreign nation. While Israel brushed aside the Lord’s warnings through his prophets, the Assyrian army began to rumble toward the west, conquering everything in its path. Under kings by the elaborate names of Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, and Sennacherib, Assyrian imperialism wreaked havoc on every major power center in the Middle East. No opposing army could stand against their assembled forces. Even the most heavily fortified cities thought to be havens from attack crumbled under extended siege, sometimes lasting for years until a city fell.
In 738 B.C., king Uzziah of the southern kingdom of Judah tried to head off their advance by assembling a league of armies volunteering from many of the threatened countries surrounding Israel. In northern Syria, the decisive battle finally took place. Tiglath-Pileser easily routed the last-minute defense force and the opposition league quickly dissolved, leaving nothing between them and total Assyrian domination of the Middle East.
The Assyrian army followed a logical path of attack. Traveling along the major trading highways to the north of the vast Arabian Desert, they began to take control of every economic center within the Fertile Crescent. Those cities which would not submit to foreign domination and the paying of tribute to the Assyrian king were militarily destroyed. Most often the upper classes were lead away captive to be slaves in Assyria so that the territories could no longer mount a viable resistance. The historical books of the Bible record the following:
“In the days of Pekah, king of Israel, came Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abel-Beth-Maachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.”
2 Kings 15:29
Assyrian action was swift. By 734 B.C., Tiglath-Pileser had conquered much of the countries between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea. The northern kingdom of Israel was reduced from the expansive, prosperous land under King Jeroboam II, who reigned less than a generation earlier, to a fragmented territory less than a third its original size. For the first time since they were slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel faced an enemy that could do with them as they wished. In this instance, however, there was one critical difference: the Lord also stood against them.
It is one thing to be bombarded with the worst that the world can muster, it is another thing to be on the receiving end of the judgment of God. Whether he chooses to use a supernatural force or an earthly army, what the Lord sets in motion no man can stop. With all of the fiery destruction that the Assyrian army had caused up to this point it is hard to understand how the preaching of men like Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah could have gone unheeded. As incredible as it may sound, Israel’s sinfulness was destined to affect the rise and fall of many nations for centuries to come. Under normal circumstances, God would never have allowed an evil empire like Assyria to threaten Israel’s borders. But now their continued rebelliousness changed everything. The peace of Israel under God’s blessing would have guaranteed peace for the entire region. However, the curse of the Lord that his evil people were now experiencing at the hands of Tiglath-Pileser virtually insured troublous times to come.
The days of the sinful kingdom of Israel were numbered. Continued resistance to the expanding Assyrian empire, mainly instigated through Egyptian influence, tempted Hoshea, the last king of Israel, to make a final, fatal alliance. Shalmaneser V, Tiglath-Pileser’s successor, was quick to react. In 724 B.C., the Assyrians began to put down the uprising by pushing toward the very gates of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. All that the prophet Isaiah had warned about concerning judgment was about to come true with tremendous force. In addition, the words of Moses written down centuries before this time were also coming true with amazing precision.
Even though King Hoshea quickly surrendered rather than face the Assyrian onslaught, Shalmaneser continued forward until in 722 B.C. Samaria fell. The Assyrians, fearing more revolts, began major population relocations during the reign of King Sargon II. Most of the Jewish inhabitants in northern Israel were moved to the farthest reaches of the empire, and the land was repopulated with foreigners who would remain subject to the Assyrians. In the aftermath of these battles, the once proud nation that the Lord had chosen and redeemed from Egypt was reduced to a mere fraction of its former boundaries within the Promised Land.
Most of the maps which show the extent of the Assyrian empire at this point in history are inaccurate in their portrayal of the integrity of the remaining Jews within the southern kingdom of Judah. Sometimes we get the impression modern day teachings that Judah was totally unaffected by Israel’s defeat. The reality of the situation is that Judah was left as nothing more than a vassal state that had to pay tribute to the Assyrians for their very existence. In fact, Judah would not even have survived at all if it were not for the divine intervention of God. In 701 B.C., King Senacherib, Sargon’s successor, marched toward the very gates of Jerusalem with the intent of its total destruction. As Hoshea had done just twenty years before in the northern kingdom of Israel, Hezekiah, the king of the southern kingdom of Judah attempted to revolt from Assyrian dominance by forming a rebellious alliance with other tribute-hating countries in the region. Isaiah’s prophecies foretold the aftereffects of this move just like a play-by-play commentator watching an event happening right in front of him. Unlike a newsman, however, Isaiah predicted the Assyrian attack long before it actually occurred…
“He is come to Aiath; he is passed to Migron; at Michmash he hath stored his baggage.
“They have taken up their lodging at Geba; Ramah is afraid; Gibeah of Saul is fled.
“Lift up thy voice, O daughter of Gallim! Cause it to be heard, O Laishah! O poor Anathoth!
“Madmenah is removed; the inhabitants of Gebim gather themselves to flee.
“As yet shall he remain at Nob that day; he shall shake his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.”
The Assyrian army was going to systematically take control of every major city in Judah except Jerusalem. In order to dominate the entire region, they would also have to capture the capital and subdue its leadership. As this prophecy came true, a force of several hundred thousand soldiers made their way toward Jerusalem from the north along the route that Isaiah described in dramatic detail above. To those people behind the walls of Jerusalem, it seemed as though nothing could stop them from realizing victory—nothing on earth that is—for the Lord was not yet willing to let Judah suffer the complete scattering of her counterpart Israel. The main difference between the two countries was in the faith of Judah’s leadership in the power of God. King Hezekiah was a man who trusted in the Lord and was willing to listen to the counsel of Isaiah even when the Assyrian army was within a stone’s throw of the gates of Jerusalem. Faced with insurmountable odds, he was nonetheless willing to believe that the Lord could still deliver his people just as he had done in the days of Israel’s glory now past. Because of Hezekiah’s faith, the angel of the Lord went out that same night and killed 185,000 Assyrians, causing the rest of them to return home on the basis of a rumor. Jerusalem was saved, but only by the skin of their teeth.