2 Nephi 20 tweet: Assyria – rod of God’s anger – boasts itself against God. So God will consume Assyria’s glory. And a remnant of Jacob will return.
You’ll remember when we last left the story of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel), Ephraim (the northern kingdom of Israel), Syria and Assyria (again, see here for how these moving parts fit together), Isaiah was prophesying of a deeply disturbing destruction that was about to be visited on Ephraim by Assyria.
v1–4: The beginning of Isaiah 10 really belongs with the end of Isaiah 9 – Isaiah continues to pronounce woes upon Ephraim culminating with a repeat of the refrain “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” (The last post explained why this isn’t an indication of God’s mercy!)
v5–6: These verses mark a new section of the text. Having pronounced wo against Ephraim, Isaiah turns his prophetic voice towards Assyria. And with this shift comes additional reassurance for Judah that despite Assyria’s might, a remnant will be spared (though that’s only reassuring if you’re part of the remnant). As Joe Spencer puts it:
Isaiah turns back to his theme of deliverance. A remnant will escape the devastation. But how? Here there’s no more allusive talk of a coming king. Instead, as Isaiah 10 goes on, we get a story about God himself placing a limit on Assyria’s advance. As before, Isaiah calls Assyria a mere “rod” or a “staff,” a tool in God’s hands to accomplish divine purposes (2 Ne 20:5). The empire has been sent “against a hypocritical nation” with the task of “tread[ing] them down like the mire of the streets” (v6).1
v7–11: But Assyria doesn’t see it this way – that it is merely a tool to bring about the Lord’s purposes. This isn’t particularly clear in the KJV. The NET Bible translation of the first two lines of v7 reads:
But he does not agree with this, his mind does not reason this way2
The “he” is Assyria (or Assyria’s king). The gist of the verse is that Assyria did not believe it was under the control of the Lord. Assyria believed it was pursuing its own plan to dominate many nations.
Regarding v9, the NET Bible provides the following note:
The city states listed here were conquered by the Assyrians between 740–717 b.c. The point of the rhetorical questions is that no one can stand before Assyria’s might.3
Assyria is reflecting on its military conquests – and in particular those over the northern kingdom of Ephraim – and assumes it has the power to do anything it wishes to Judah: “Shall I not, as I have done unto Samaria and her idols, so do to Jerusalem and to her idols?” (v11).
v12–19: But in the face of Assyria’s arrogance Isaiah states: “When the Lord hath performed his whole work upon mount Zion and upon Jerusalem,” i.e. to produce a remnant ready to be holy (see v20 and this post), the Lord “will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks” (v12). The ax won’t “boast itself against him that heweth therewith” (v15).
And how will the Lord humble Assyria? In the last chapter we read how Ephraim’s briars and thorns would be burned up, set on fire by their own wickedness (2 Ne 19:18). Now Isaiah says this of Assyria: “The light of Israel shall be for a fire and his Holy One for a flame, and shall burn and shall devour [Assyria’s] thorns, and his briars, in one day” (v17). What’s left of Assyria at the end of this is a few trees, few enough “that a child may write them” (v19).
In these verses, Isaiah is prophesying the miraculous destruction of Assyria and the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. The destruction, when it came, is actually described in 2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 37. Assyria wouldn’t be destroyed because of the might of Judah’s army – the whole point was that Assyria would reduce Judah to a mere remnant. Under these circumstances the remnant would have no hope against the might of the Assyrians. Jerusalem would lie under siege. Hezekiah – the king who Isaiah prophesied would deliver Judah – could do nothing except desperately pray to God for deliverance (see Isaiah 37:14–20). Judah’s destruction, like Ephraim’s before, was imminent. And then…
And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. 2 Kings 19:35
And for those who prefer poetry to scripture, we have this classic prose from Lord Byron:
The Destruction of Sennacherib (1815)
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still.
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride:
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
v20–23: From this war with Assyria emerges “the remnant of Israel,” those “escaped of the house of Jacob” (v20). They no longer trust in Assyria but instead the Lord. And “the remnant shall return – yea, even the remnant of Jacob – unto the mighty God” (v21). There’s been “a consumption, even determined in all the land” (v23), but this consumption “shall overflow with righteousness” (v22), that is, a righteous remnant shall be left over at the end.
v24–34: The end of the chapter is in essence a recapitulation of what we have just read concerning the threat but ultimate demise of Assyria. Joe Spencer summarises it in this way:
Isaiah 10 ends with a bit of theatre meant to dramatise Assyria’s failure to conquer Judah according to its plans. The prophet describes the Assyrian army marching from Ephraim toward Judah, listing the cities one by one as they get closer and closer. For ancient readers and listeners, the tension builds as the danger gets nearer and nearer – and nearer. But then, just a short distance from Jerusalem, the army is stopped. Assyria will “remain at Nob that day. He shall shake his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion” (v32), but he’ll do no more than that. And Assyria, frustrated, shakes his angry fist at Jerusalem, “the Lord – the Lord of hosts! – shall lop the bough with terror” (v33), cutting down the Assyrian tree in spectacular fashion. Where once there was a towering cedar, there’s now nothing but a stump.4
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 21–22
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p. 198
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p. 199