V ERY great and very strong were the heathen kings who ruled in Assyria. It was no wonder that the people of Judah lived in terror of those heathen kings, and that they forgot sometimes that, though the Jews were such a small, weak nation, they had a great Defender, and that God would protect His people.
There had been many bad kings in Judah who had forgotten God and brought evil on the city of Jerusalem. But now a new king had come to the throne, and as the people shouted, "God save the king," they hoped he would be strong and courageous and keep them safe from their heathen enemies.
Hezekiah, the new king, was a young man, but he was wise and brave, and, best of all, he trusted God with all his heart. The kings before him had been afraid of the great armies of the Assyrians, and had, in their fear, paid money or tribute every year to the heathen king, which really made them vassals or servants. Hezekiah would not do this.
"We serve the Lord God," he said, "and not the kings of Assyria."
But did the people really serve God? The king looked at the beautiful Temple, God's house, and there were no priests there, no service going on. The doors were shut. There was dust and ruin everywhere. The golden lamps had gone out, and were hanging all tarnished and dim; there was no sweet scent of incense, no sacrifice to God.
That was bad enough, but it was a sign of something worse. The people had become careless, their faith in God had grown dim; they had shut the door of their hearts against Him, had forgotten all His goodness to them, and had covered themselves with sin, as the dust that lay thick on His altar.
Then Hezekiah set to work suddenly to sweep away the evil from the Temple and from the hearts of the people. In a few days the Temple was cleaned and made beautiful once more; the people were warned that if they forgot God He would cease to be their defender, and were bidden to come to a great service in the Temple to ask for forgiveness and help.
Hezekiah reopens the Temple.
The wise king did not stop there. He knew that God would help them, but they must also help themselves. So he ordered the walls of Jerusalem to be built up and made strong. And he stored up food, and made a wonderful underground channel to bring water into the city.
And it was well that this was done: for ere long the news came that Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, was on his way to punish the king for refusing to pay tribute and be his vassal.
The news, brought in by the poor country people, who were fleeing from their burning villages, struck terror to the hearts of the people of Jerusalem. They knew what a terrible man this King of Assyria was. He was as strong as a lion and as cruel as a tiger, and his army was so mighty that no one could stand against it. Far away on the horizon they could see the smoke of the burning villages, rolling nearer and nearer as the conquering army swept on. Who was to help them now? Even Hezekiah's courage failed him for a while. He tried to make peace by promising to give all his gold and all the treasures of the Temple to Sennacherib. He sent secretly to ask the mighty Egyptians to help him. But it was all of no use. The whole country of Judah was laid waste, and still the army marched on to destroy Jerusalem. It was but a little thing for such a powerful army to do. They would sweep it away as easily as a child sweeps a fly off the wall.
Sennacherib laughed at the very idea that Hezekiah would dare to stand up and fight against him.
"I have shut him up as a bird in a cage, in his royal city of Jerusalem," he wrote boastfully.
All day long the people in Jerusalem watched with terrified eyes for the great armies that were marching, marching onwards. The sound of their feet was like thunder from the hills, the sheen of their spears like blinding lightning.
But it was then that Hezekiah's courage returned. In the time of greatest danger he remembered God's promise. The people were crouching in fear, but the king's voice sounded out clear and strong above their cries of terror and the weeping of the women.
"Be strong and courageous," he cried; "be not afraid nor dismayed for the King of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that are with him: for there is more with us than with him. With him is an army of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles."
Those brave words cheered the people. But all night long they watched from the walls: perhaps the great army was resting; the attack would come in the morning.
The morning dawned, and the watchers still looked out with straining eyes. But as the light grew stronger they saw that something strange had happened. There was no attack. God had indeed fought their battle. The Angel of Death had passed over the camp, and the dead lay there in thousands. God's angels had stood between them and the enemy and had saved them, as God's angels can always do. Hezekiah had done well to bid them put their trust in the Lord their God.
"The Assyrian came down like a 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 on 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 were 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 Asshur 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."