And it came to pass that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and eighty five thousand: and when they arose in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.-- 2 KINGS xix. 35.
You heard read in the first lesson last Sunday afternoon, the threats of the king of Assyria against Jerusalem, and his defiance of the true Lord whose temple stood there. In the first lesson for this morning's service, you heard of king Hezekiah's fear and perplexity; of the Lord's answer to him by Isaiah, and of the great and wonderful destruction of the Assyrian army, of which my text tells you. Of course you have a right to ask: "This which happened in a foreign country more than two thousand years ago, what has it to do with us?" And, of course, my preaching about it will be of no use whatsoever, unless I can show you what it has to do with us; what lesson we English here, in the year 1851, are to draw, from the help which God sent the Jews.
But to find out that, we must hear the whole story. Before we can find out why God drove the Assyrians out of Judaea, we must find out, it seems to me, why He sent them, or allowed them to come into Judaea; and to find out that, we must first see how the Jews were behaving in those times, and what sort of state their country was in; and we must find out, too, what sort of a man this great king of Assyria was, and what sort of thoughts were in his heart.
Now, by the favour of God, we can find out this. You will see, in the first thirty-seven chapters of Isaiah's prophecies, a full account of the ways of the Jews in that time, and the reasons why God allowed so fearful a danger to come upon them. The whole first thirty-five chapters belong to each other, and are, so to speak, a spiritual history of the Jews, and the Assyrians, and all the nations round them, for many years. A spiritual history--that is, not merely a history of what they did, but of what they were, what was in their inmost hearts, and thoughts, and spirits; a spiritual history--that is, not merely of what they thought they were doing, but of what God saw that they were doing--a history of God's mind about them all. Isaiah had God's spirit on him; and so he saw what was going on round him in the same light in which God saw it, and hated it, or praised it, only according as it was good, and according to the good Spirit of God, or bad, and contrary to that Spirit. So Isaiah's history of his own nation, and the nations around him, was very unlike what they would have written for themselves; just as I am afraid he would write a very different history of England now, from what we should write, if we were set to do it. Now what Isaiah thought of the doings of his countrymen, the Jews, I must tell you in another sermon, next Sunday. It will be enough this morning to speak of the king of Assyria.
These kings of Assyria thought themselves the greatest and strongest beings in the world; they thought that their might was right, and that they might conquer, and ravage, and plunder and oppress every country round them for thousands of miles, without being punished. They thought that they could overcome the true God of Judaea, as they had conquered the empty idols and false gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Iva. But Isaiah saw that they were wrong. He told his countrymen: "These Assyrian kings are strong, but there is a stronger King than they, Jehovah the Lord of all the earth. It is He who sent them to punish nation after nation, Sennacherib is the rod of Jehovah's anger; but he is a fool after all; for all his cunning, for all his armies, he is a fool rushing on his ruin. He may take Tyre, Damascus, Babylon, Egypt itself, and cast their gods into the fire, for they are no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone; but let him once try his strength against the real living God; let the axe once begin to boast itself against Him that hews therewith; and he will find out that there is one stronger than he, one who has been using him as a 'tool, and who will crush him like a moth the moment he rebels. His father destroyed Samaria and her idols, but he shall not destroy Jerusalem. He may ravage Ephraim, and punish the gluttony and drunkenness, and oppression of the great landlords of Bashan; he may bring misery and desolation through the length and breadth of the land: there is reason, and reason but too good for that: but Jerusalem, the place where God's honour dwells, the temple without idols, which is the sign that Jehovah is a living God, against it he shall not cast up a bank, or shoot an arrow into it.' "I know," said Isaiah, "what he is saying of himself, this proud king of Assyria: but this is what God says of him, that he is only a puppet, a tool in the hand of God, to punish these wicked nations whom he is conquering one by one, and us Jews among the rest. He, this proud king of Assyria, thinks that he is the chosen favourite of the sun, and the moon, and the stars, whom, in his folly, he worships as gods. He will find out who is the real Lord of the earth; he will find out that this great world is ruled by that very God of Israel whom he despises. He will find that there is something in this earth, of which he fancies himself lord and master, which is too strong for him, which will obey God, and not him. God rules the earth, and God rules Tophet, and the great fire-kingdoms which boil and blaze for ever in the bowels of the earth, and burst up from time to time in earthquakes and burning mountains; and God has ordained that they shall conquer this proud king of Assyria, though we Jews are too weak and cowardly, and split up into parties by our wickedness, to make a stand against him." . . .
This great eruption or breaking out of burning mountains, which would destroy the king of Assyria's army, was to happen, Isaiah says, close to Jerusalem, nay, it was to shake Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem was to be brought to great misery by everlasting burnings, as well as by being besieged by the Assyrians; and yet the very shaking of the earth and eruption of fire which was nearly to destroy it, was to be the cause of its deliverance. So Isaiah prophesied, and we cannot doubt his words came true. For this may explain to us the way in which the king of Assyria's army was destroyed. The text says, that when they encamped near Jerusalem the messenger of the Lord went out, and slew in one night one hundred and eighty thousand of them, who were all found dead in the morning. How they were killed we cannot exactly tell, most likely by a stream of poisonous vapour, such as often comes forth out of the ground during earthquakes and eruptions of burning mountains, and kills all men and animals who breathe it. That this was the way that this great army was destroyed, I have little doubt, not only on account of what Isaiah says in his prophecies of God's "sending a blast" upon the king of Assyria, but because it was just like the old lesson which God had been teaching the Jews all along, that the earth and all in it was His property, and obeyed Him. For what could teach them that more strongly than to see that the earthquakes and burning mountains, of all things on earth the most awful and most murderous, the very things against which man has no defence, obeyed God; burst forth when He chose, and did His work as He willed? For man can conquer almost everything in the world except these burning mountains and earthquakes. He can sail over the raging sea in his ships; he can till the most barren soils; he can provide against famine, rain, and cold, ay, against the thunder itself: but the earthquakes alone are too strong for him. Against them no cunning or strength of man is of any use. Without warning, they make the solid ground under his feet heave, and reel, and sink, hurling down whole towns in a moment, and burying the inhabitants under the ruins, as an earthquake did in Italy only a month ago. Or they pour forth streams of fire, clouds of dust, brimstone, and poisonous vapour, destroying for miles around the woods and crops, farms and cities, and burying them deep in ashes, as they have done again and again, both in Italy and Iceland, and in South America, even during the last few years. How can man stand against them? What greater warning or lesson to him than they, that God is stronger than man; that the earth is not man's property, and will not obey him, but only the God who made it? Now that was just what God intended to teach the Jews all along; that the earth and heaven belonged to Him and obeyed Him; that they were not to worship the sun and stars, as the Assyrians and Canaanites did, nor the earth and the rivers as the Egyptians did: but to worship the God who made sun and stars, earth and rivers, and to put their trust in Him to guide all heaven and earth aright; and to make all things, sun, earth, and weather, ay, and the very burning mountains and earthquakes, work together for good for them if they loved God. Therefore it was that God gave His law to Moses on the burning mountain of Sinai, amid thunders, and lightnings, and earthquakes, to show them that the lightnings and the mountains obeyed Him. Therefore it was that the earthquake opened the ground and swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who rebelled against Moses. Therefore it was that God once used an earthquake and eruption to preserve David from his enemies, as we read in the eighteenth Psalm. And all through David's Psalms we find how well he had learnt this great lesson which God had taught him. Again and again we find verses which show that he knew well enough who was the Lord of all the earth.
In Isaiah's time, it seems, God taught the Jews once more the same thing. He taught them, and the proud king of Assyria, once and for all, that He was indeed the Lord--Lord of all nations, and King of kings, and also Lord of the earth, and all that therein is. He taught it to the poor oppressed Jews by that miraculous deliverance. He taught it to the cruel invading king by that miraculous destruction. Just in the height of his glory, after he had conquered almost every nation in the east, and overcome the whole of Judaea, except that one small city of Jerusalem, Sennacherib's great army was swept away, he neither knew how nor why, in a single night, and utterly disheartened and abashed, he returned to his own land; and even there he found that the God of Israel had followed him--that the idols whom he worshipped could not save him from the wrath of that God to whom Assyria, just as much as Jerusalem, belonged. For as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, his two sons smote him with the sword, and there was an end of all his pride and conquests. . . . Now Nisroch was the name of a star--the star which we call the planet Saturn; and the Assyrians fancied in their folly, that whosoever worshipped any particular star, that star would protect and help him. . . . But, alas for the king of Assyria, there was One above who had made the stars, and from whose vengeance the stars could not save him; and so even while he was worshipping, and praying to, this favourite star of his which could not hear him, he fell dead, a murdered man, and found out too late how true were the great words of Isaiah when he prophesied against him.
Yes, my friends, this is the lesson which the Jews had to learn, and which the king of Assyria had to learn, and which we have to learn also; and which God will, in His great mercy, teach us over and over again by bitter trials whensoever we forget it; that The Lord is King; that He is near us, living for ever, all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving; that those who really trust in Him shall never be confounded; that those who trust in themselves are trying their paltry strength against the God who made heaven and earth, and will surely find out their own weakness, just when they fancy themselves most successful. So it was in Hezekiah's time; so it is now, hard as it may be to us to believe it. The Lord Jehovah, Jesus Christ, who saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians, He still is King, let the earth be never so unquiet. And all men, or governments, or doctrines, or ways of thinking and behaving, which are contrary to His will, or even pretend that they can do without Him, will as surely come to nought as that great and terrible king of Assyria. Though man be too weak to put them down, Christ is not. Though man neglect to put them down, Christ will not. If man dare not fight on the Lord's side against sin and evil, the Lord's earth will fight for Him. Storm and tempest, blight and famine, earthquakes and burning mountains, will do His work, if nothing else will. As He said Himself, if man stops praising Him, the very stones will cry out, and own Him as their King. Not that the blessed Lord is proud, or selfish, or revengeful; God forbid! He is boundless pity, and love, and mercy. But it is just because He is perfect love and pity that He hates sin, which makes all the misery upon earth. He hates it, and he fights against it for ever; lovingly at first, that He may lead sinners to repentance; for He wills the death of none, but rather that all should come to repentance. But if a man will not turn, He will whet his sword; and then woe to the sinner. Let him be as great as the king of Assyria, he must down. For the Lord will have none guide His world but Himself, because none but He will ever guide it on the right path. Yes--but what a glorious thought, that He will guide it, and us, on that right path. Oh blessed news for all who are in sorrow and perplexity! Whatsoever it is that ails you--and who is there, young or old, rich or poor, who has not their secret ailments at heart?--whatsoever ails you, whatsoever terrifies you, whatsoever tempts you, trust in the same Lord who delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians, and He will deliver you. He will never suffer you to be tempted above that you are able, but will with the temptation also make a way for you to escape, that you may be able to bear it. This has been His loving way from the beginning, and this will be His way until the day when He wipes away tears from all eyes.