The Death of Sennacherib: A Case Study in Prophecy
The study of Bible prophecy is a most fascinating engagement. In his monumental work, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, the late Professor J. Barton Payne contended that the Bible contains 1,817 prophecies which embrace 8,352 predictive verses. These, he said, consume about twenty-seven percent of the whole biblical text (1973, 674-675). In this brief article we will consider but one of these prophecies.
Sennacherib was a monarch who reigned over the ancient Assyrian Empire for twenty-five years (705-681 B.C.). His name is found thirteen times in the Old Testament. Most notably he is mentioned in the Bible in connection with his invasion of Syria and Palestine in 701 B.C. He came west to put down a revolt in Phoenicia, then in Judah, over which Hezekiah reigned (for twenty-nine years) as the thirteenth king of the southern regime. The biblical text reads as follows:
Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fortified cities of Judah, and took them (2 Kings 18:13).
Assyrian records state that he took forty-six fortified cities and captured numerous other smaller communities. Sennacherib bragged that he took 200,150 captives (men and women, young and old). He further stated that he shut up Hezekiah as a prisoner in his royal palace, “like a bird in a cage” (Pritchard 1958, 200).
His army surrounded Jerusalem while the king himself remained for a while at Lachish, some twenty-five miles southwest of the Holy City (18:14; but see 19:8). This minimal achievement powerfully supports the Bible record, namely that the Assyrian ruler did not capture Jerusalem. He was known to boast of his victories; but regarding Jerusalem he was silent. This is an important point. (Note: a copy of the Sennacherib Prism resides in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago; another, the Taylor prism, is in the British Museum in London.)
Hezekiah, who was one of Judah’s better kings, had been seriously intimidated by the threat, and he paid the Assyrian ruler three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. This is the equivalent of eleven tons of silver and a ton of gold! This precious bounty was stripped from the sacred temple and the king’s palace.
Presently, Hezekiah decided to appeal to God in prayer. Is it not tragic how often the Lord is consulted as a last resort? The Jewish ruler approached Isaiah and asked him to petition Jehovah on behalf of the remnant of his people. The Lord’s answer, by means of his prophet, was that the Assyrian king would not prevail! (2 Kings 19:1-7).
With stunning brevity, reflecting the restraint of divine inspiration, the Old Testament writer records how the Lord God dealt with the pagan army.
And it came to pass that night, that the angel [messenger] of Jehovah went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians, one hundred and eighty-five thousand. And when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36; Psalm 76).
Sennacherib’s arrogant blasphemy against Jehovah was answered by a sizable conglomerate of corpses! Hostile critics scoff at this supernatural account, but there is no reason for the devout Bible student to question it.
There appears to be a distorted recollection of the event two centuries later. The Greek historian Herodotus records the rumor of a massive destruction of Sennacherib’s army at the “entrance” to Egypt. He depicted it as a plague of field mice that chewed up the Assyrians’ leather bowstrings, quivers, and shield straps. Interestingly, he attributed the destruction to a divine intervention, a lack of “reverence” for “the gods” (The Histories II.141). Professor Ridderbos noted: “In this story we find the garbled reminiscence of the disaster that struck Sennacherib’s army” (1985, 312).
The poet Lord Byron captured the drama of the event in his celebrated epic, “The Death of Sennacherib” (though he erred in the title; the Assyrian king did not die in this catastrophe).
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foes as he passed.
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still.
For a consideration of the prophecy upon which we focus, we must go back momentarily to a previous text. The Lord, through Isaiah, informed Hezekiah:
Be not afraid of the words you have heard [Sennacherib’s threat], by which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, and he shall hear news, and shall return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land (2 Kings 19:6b-7).
Several things in this text are worthy of reflection. First, the Lord says, “I will put a spirit in him, and he shall hear news.” The expression is shrouded in mystery. Was it the report of an approaching Egyptian force (vv. 8-9) whom the Lord might have stirred? Or the stunning news of the destruction of his army at Jerusalem? (19:35-36). Most likely the latter. The declaration that God would be orchestrating the message is clear (cf. Acts 17:26). Sennacherib’s arrogance would be replaced with a paralysis of fear!
Second, there is the prophecy that he would return to his own land. The ruler did go home presently. Significant, however, is the fact that while he engaged in a number of subsequent military campaigns, he never again returned to Judah! Why not?
Finally, Jehovah declared: “I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.” This amazing prophecy was fulfilled precisely—some twenty years later. As one scholar has noted: “The mills of God grind slowly but exceedingly fine” (Patterson 1988, 268).
So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh. And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer [two sons] smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esar-haddon his son reigned in his stead (2 Kings 19:36-37).
An inscription from the annals of Esar-haddon (680 B.C.) confirms the biblical record:
In the month of Nisan . . . I made my joyful entrance into the royal palace, the awesome place wherein abides the fate of kings. A firm determination fell upon my brothers. They forsook the gods and returned to their deeds of violence, plotting evil . . . . They revolted. To gain the kingship they slew Sennacherib, their father" (Caiger 1944, 161-162).
The renegades fled. It is an ironical twist that the Assyrian ruler, who boasted that Judah’s God could not protect Jerusalem, himself was murdered “as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god.”
The study of Bible prophecy is a fascinating enterprise and constitutes powerful evidence of the divine origin of the Holy Scriptures.
- Caiger, Stephen L. 1944. Bible and Spade – An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology. London, England: Oxford University Press.
- Patterson, R. D. 1988. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 4. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Payne, J. Barton. 1973. Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
- Pritchard, James B. 1958. The Ancient Near East. Vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
- Ridderbos, J. 1985. Isaiah – Bible Student’s Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.