Isaiah and Hezekiah 715-687, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.
We have seen something of the part played by Isaiah in Ahaz’s day in stiffening the resolve of Judah’s ruler. His role in the political and military spheres, as well of course as in the religious, was to be more formidable in the reign of Ahaz’s son and successor, Hezekiah. The central scene where this role was played was Jerusalem, and the book of Isaiah offers us glimpses of life in and around the city as intimate and colorful as some of those in the Book of Samuel in the time of David, some 250 years earlier.
Isaiah grew up and dwelt in Jerusalem, living with its sights and sounds and patterns for some fifty years. He was familiar with and conditioned by its history. This was his heritage. In return, he was to give Jerusalem—and, through Jerusalem, to civilization—a prize of measureless worth, powerful moral precepts in sublime language. His concern was immediate and local—developing Jerusalem’s spiritual forces, rallying her military strength, arresting her threatened destruction. The impact was timeless and universal.
In his prophetic pronouncements, Isaiah draws upon the landscape of the region and the common scenes he encountered inside the city as he walked its streets and watched from his housetop. And so we read of the bleak surrounding hills and “the desolate valleys” and “the holes of the rocks”—much as they are today; of the fruitfulness nearer home—the wheatfields of “the valley of Rephaim” (now a broad Jerusalem street bearing the same name) where “the harvestman gathereth corn,” the vineyards where they “gleaned grapes” and the groves where they “shook the olive tree.” Inside the city, which he also calls “Mount Zion,” we get a detailed description of the crowds in the Temple court and the milling multitudes in the narrow lanes, the horses and chariots, the “tumult” and the “movement” there, the lust for material riches, for silver and gold, which so outrages the prophet, and the indulgence in coarse festivities with “the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and the pipe, and wine…but they regard not the work of the Lord.”
Over all this hangs the grim threat of invasion. Isaiah, through his burning words, rouses the king and people to meet it not only by making the fortifications more secure, but above all by a strengthening of the spirit. He emphasizes the moral and religious significance of Jerusalem, the spiritual fountain it was and must again become, “the faithful city…full of judgment [and] righteousness.” It has been debased, but the Lord has not forsaken it. Later, when the battle is joined, his words take on a crucial urgency—and, at the critical moment, decide the issue.
Meanwhile, Hezekiah got to work on the physical strengthening of Jerusalem. The new Assyrian ruler, Sennacherib, was smashing his way even further southwards, and although Hezekiah could and did put off the confrontation by various alliances with kingdoms equally threatened by the Assyrians, he knew that eventually Jerusalem would be attacked.
It is evident from the Bible that he was much preoccupied with the water system, and from this ancient record—as well as from a remarkable archaeological discovery some ninety years ago—we know that he devised a plan to secure his own water supply and a t the same time deny water to the enemy. However strong his fortifications, he would never withstand siege if his water ran out. By the same token, a besieger could not long maintain his pressure on the city if, in the arid surroundings in which his men would be encamped, the main local source of water were cut off.
Hezekiah accordingly “made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city” (II Kings XX, 20). He “also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David” (II Chronicles XXXII, 30). Gihon, as we have seen, was at the foot of the eastern wall and was the main source of the city’s’ water. What Hezekiah did, therefore, was to seal the Gihon cave in which the spring issued, thus denying it to an invader. At the same time, he cut a 600 yard tunnel (preserved to this day) which led the water under the southeastern part of the city and out to a reservoir or pool inside the city at a point where the ground is lower. This is known as the pool of Siloam (or Shiloah).
In 1880, the biblical record was confirmed by the discovery in the rock wall of the lower entrance to the tunnel, south of the Temple area, of a Hebrew inscription on how the underground passage was excavated. The language is perfect classical Hebrew prose, its contents and script pointing to the reign of Hezekiah. The words were inscribed on a prepared surface of the wall, like the surface of a tablet, but the top part of the inscription was missing. Six lines alone remained, enough to tell the story of how the tunnel was dug by two teams of miners starting at opposite ends, working towards each other and meeting in the middle. It is known as “The Siloam [or Shiloah] Inscription.” In its standard English translation, it reads as follows-
“[…when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through- — — while […] (were) still […] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.”
Hezekiah also set about strengthening the fortifications of the city, reorganizing the armed forces and the reserves, and re-equipping them to meet the inevitable Assyrian attack. He “built up all the wall that was broken, and raised it up to the towers, and another wall without, and repaired Millo in the city of David, and made darts and shields in abundance. And he set captains of war over the people…”
While all these works were being undertaken, he introduced radical religious reforms, repairing the Temple, purifying it, breaking up the idols that had made their appearance in the previous reign, and outlawing pagan worship and the barbaric forms this sometimes took. When he roused his people, it was with the “Lord God of Israel” on his tongue, and “the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah.”
In the year 701, Sennacherib struck. The powerful Assyrian monarch had already accomplished a victorious march southwards and reduced all the territories to the west, north and northeast of Judah. He had also cut deeply into the Hebrew kingdom and had “come up against the fenced cities of Judah, and took them.” Jerusalem alone remained. Sennacherib now proceeded against it.
The mighty conquests which had brought him so close to Jerusalem coupled with the sacking of all the other principal cites of Judah, prompted Sennacherib to attempt to cow Hezekiah into surrender without having to fight. He sent his Chief Minister Rabshakeh together with an army which encamped near the ramparts of the city, and they tried with threatening words to demoralize the Jerusalemites into submission.
Hezekiah sought advice from Isaiah, and it was the prophet’s rallying words which stiffened his people’s resolve to resist and saved Jerusalem. The biblical record condenses them into a few sentences. His key exhortation was- “Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard.” The surrender appeal was spurned. The siege was withstood. The attackers eventually left and returned to the Assyrian capital.
Jerusalem was untaken. Its miraculous survival against so mighty a foe, the one fortress to remain standing when all others in the path of the conqueror had fallen, gave it a special mystique. Here alone the Assyrians had been held. The Temple was intact. At a crucial moment the words of Isaiah, the man of God, had saved the city. The feeling spread that Jerusalem was inviolable. In physical terms, this article of faith was to receive a tragic jolt 114 years later. In spiritual terms—Jerusalem in the heart of the Jew—it remains alive to this day.
Acknowledged was the greatness of Jerusalem, the greatness of Isaiah, and the supremacy of Jerusalem as the centre of the Hebrew nation. In its defiance of Sennacherib, Jerusalem knew one of its finest moments.