Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: he hath no standing grain; the blade shall yield no meal; if so be it yield, strangers shall swallow it up (Hosea 8:7).

Sometimes little things can lead to far more severe consequences. Witness the snowball rolling down the hill, becoming an avalanche.

For years, generations even, the northern Kingdom of Israel perpetuated all sorts of transgressions. They had become commonplace by the days of Hosea and Jeroboam II king of Israel; the cult statues of the golden calves in Dan and Bethel had been entrenched for over one hundred and fifty years (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33, Hosea 8:4-6). The Israelites had negotiated treaties and alliances with all of their neighbors for that long as well; they had been one of the stronger military powers in the Levant in that period, perhaps lesser than the Arameans, but certainly greater than the Judahites, Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, and others. There were times of deep idolatry, as with Ahab, Jezebel, and the Baals (1 Kings 16:29-33); yet Jehu son of Nimshi exterminated Baal out of Israel, at least for a time (2 Kings 10:28). Thus, Israelites in the eighth century BCE had lived in ways quite consistent with over five generations of their ancestors. Why should they expect anything to change? Why wouldn’t they continue to serve YHWH as the calves in Dan and Bethel as their fathers had done? Why wouldn’t they be able to continue to preserve their kingdom with a robust military and strategic foreign policy just as they had done for years?

For us today, the answer is obvious: Israel had not yet faced the full, unmitigated fury of the Assyrian menace, and they would prove no match for the Assyrian. We can see that with the benefit of hindsight; we can see how they had sown the wind and thus reaped the whirlwind.

To sow the wind and reap the whirlwind is an interesting phrase; it might well already be proverbial when Hosea uttered it, and it certainly has become proverbial ever since. It is an easily understood agricultural metaphor: the whole premise of farming demands a person reaps more than he originally sowed, else he will not be able to survive. Sowing a little and reaping a lot is great when it comes to food; it is terrifying and horrible when it comes to consequences of transgression. “Wind” often denotes vanity or futility (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:11); Israel sowed the vanity of idolatry and would reap the whirlwind of complete devastation and destruction at the hands of Assyria. That did, indeed, escalate quickly!

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is proverbial for good reason. It is not as if it could only apply to Israel in the eighth century BCE. In the United States we are well aware that the American Revolution, or the Civil War, did not just spontaneously come about; plenty of smaller decisions and practices developed over centuries that “snowballed” into those armed conflicts. People still argue about how World War I began in 1914, and probably always will; yet all agree that the seeds of that conflict had been sown over at least the century beforehand, and in some cases likely far earlier. Regardless, we would be hard pressed to explain or even understand why those specific generations were the ones to endure such horrific tragedies like the Civil War, World War I, or World War II and its effects. What had they done that was that much worse than what their ancestors had done?

The answer provides cold comfort: no, those particular generations were not much better or worse than those who had come before. Instead, they were simply the ones around when it came time to reap the whirlwind. What they endured seemed disproportionate compared to what they themselves had done, but in the grand scheme of things, and viewed historically, it seemed all but inevitable. So it was with Israel; so it was in America and in Europe.

And so it will no doubt be again. In how many ways are people today sowing the wind and they, or perhaps their descendants, will reap the whirlwind? We can consider such things on both the individual and societal levels. A person may begin experimenting with drugs, become abusive, suffer terrible trauma, and make decisions which will negatively affect their offspring, who in turn also make poor decisions which perpetuate, and often deepen, the cycle. Whole groups of people exploit others or the environment, turn away from what makes for healthy societies, and the exploitation and brokenness multiplies as the generations continue until it can be sustained no longer. At some point there must be a reckoning, a suffering of terrifying consequences that may not be the fault of one particular generation but nevertheless remains a just consequence. Such is the way it goes whenever wind is sown; the whirlwind will come, and it will be savage!

Christians do well to learn from the lesson of Israel and the many lessons history would have to offer us. There may be concessions we have made to the world which seem to us as a little thing. They may involve flashpoints in the “culture war”; they may be things we believe everyone takes for granted, things “everyone just does,” “the way things are,” etc., all ways to justify things that might be contrary to the purposes of God and which in fact have only existed for less than two centuries. We get lulled into complacency on account of our narrow time frame and the fact that our ancestors did similar things and did not suffer tragic consequences, at least in this life. But what will happen if the whirlwind comes in our generation? What will we say or do then?

Hosea may have been perceived as a cantankerous lunatic in 752 BCE, but after the whirlwind of 722 it was painfully obvious just how accurate he was (Hosea 14:9). The benefit of hindsight we have regarding the failings of the people of the God before us proves relatively useless to us if we do not apply it in foresight of our current situation. May we seek to ascertain those ways in which we are not really trusting in God but trust in our own strength or in the ways of the world, turn and repent, and be saved in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Immanuel Sign

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, when he knoweth to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

The Kingdom of Judah seemed to be in deep trouble.

Around 735 BCE, faced with the ascendant power of Assyria to the north, Rezin king of Aram and Pekah king of Israel solidified their alliance and not so subtly suggested to Ahaz king of Judah that he should join their league. Ahaz resisted, and Rezin and Pekah retaliated by invading Judah and fighting against Jerusalem, intending to depose Ahaz and install a more compliant pretender on the throne (ca. 735-732 BCE, sometimes called the “Syro-Ephraimitic War”; Isaiah 7:1-6). Just before the invasion, when Judah was told of the confederation, they were terrified: Israel was likely stronger than Judah, let alone a Syro-Ephramitic alliance against Judah. How could Judah stand (cf. Isaiah 7:2)?

In the midst of this trial YHWH God of Israel sends a message to Ahaz through His prophet Isaiah. YHWH knew the plans of Aram and Israel and wanted to assure Ahaz that nothing would come of it (Isaiah 7:7). Within 65 years YHWH would see to it that there would be nothing left of Ephraim in Israel (Isaiah 7:8). All Ahaz needed to do was to do nothing, put his confidence in YHWH, and all would be well (Isaiah 7:9).

Yet Ahaz is famous (or infamous?) in Scripture for not putting his trust in YHWH but instead into the gods of other nations and what seemed like intelligent foreign policy (cf. 2 Kings 16:1-20). Now, it seemed, he was facing an existential threat to not only his own life but to the throne of David and Jerusalem itself. To do nothing while his adversaries encircled him and destroyed him? It seemed preposterous!

YHWH wishes to give a sign to Ahaz so that he can have confidence in the word He delivered through Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-11); Ahaz, attempting to appear humble and pious, demurred (Isaiah 7:12). In so doing he wearies YHWH (Isaiah 7:13), yet the Lord will give a sign regardless: a woman will conceive a child, bear a son, called Immanuel (“God with us”; Isaiah 7:14). Before he knows how to choose good and refuse evil, likely within eight to fifteen years of his birth, he will eat butter and honey, signs of prosperity, for the land of Aram and Israel will be forsaken by that time (Isaiah 7:15-16). The danger will pass away if only Ahaz would just sit tight and trust in YHWH for deliverance.

Ahaz does not put his trust in YHWH. Rezin and Pekah invade Judah and besiege Jerusalem yet prove unable to overcome it (2 Kings 16:5-6). In distress Ahaz ends up beseeching the agent YHWH intended to use to judge Aram and Israel, Assyria, but does so at a high cost: he collected the gold and silver in the Temple and his own palace to give to Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria and became a vassal of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-8). Yet Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria did not really need inducement to attack Aram and Israel; he would have likely done so without Ahaz’s appeal. In 732 BCE, Tiglath-pileser invaded Aram and Israel, exiled the inhabitants of Damascus and killed Rezin, then invaded Israel and made all of the land save for Ephraim part of his own empire (cf. 2 Kings 15:29, 16:9). About ten years later, in 722/721 BCE, Sennacherib king of Assyria finished the task by overcoming the defenses of Samaria and fully conquering the northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-6). A child conceived in 735 BCE and born in 734 BCE would have been about 12 or 13 in 722/721 BCE, at the age of knowing to choose the good and refuse evil. YHWH made sure that the Immanuel sign was accomplished in its own time, but Ahaz’s foolish action cost Judah dearly. Had Ahaz listened to YHWH and done nothing, his foes would be gone and his (relative) independence would be maintained. Yet he voluntarily submitted to Assyria as a vassal; when his son Hezekiah rebelled against Sennacherib king of Assyria and stopped paying tribute, the full force of Assyria was unleashed against Judah, leading to the destruction of the walled cities of Judah save for Jerusalem (ca. 701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:7, 13-19:37). Ahaz sought a worldly way to maintain his throne and his head; it nearly cost his son both. They only obtained deliverance because God was with them.

Over the next seven hundred years there were many times when the Jews could have easily doubted the idea that God was with them: Babylon accomplished what Assyria sought to do, the people were exiled, returned to the land, remained under foreign domination, and experienced intense persecution at the hands of pagan oppressors for maintaining their confidence in YHWH their God. Yet through all of this the people hoped for the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel sign: the Child born of a virgin who would truly represent Immanuel, God with us, and He was born in a most humble way to a Galilean peasant girl in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:21-25, Luke 2:4-20). Yet again the people of Israel were beset with foes that seemed to threaten their very existence, but the time for their concerns had passed. The sign was no longer that the child would see prosperity and the destruction of the national foes of Judah by the age of 15; the Child Himself is the sign, for He is Jesus, the Immanuel, God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). He came in the flesh to overcome the enemy of all mankind, to deliver them from sin and death, if they would only put their trust in Him to that end and stand firm (Acts 2:14-38, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-10). By persevering to the end, Jesus obtains the Kingdom promised to the descendants of David, an everlasting Kingdom, and He serves as its Lord (Daniel 2:44, Colossians 1:13).

God was with Judah: He provided the sign of the child who would be able to enjoy peace and security at 15, and it came to pass. YHWH was able to defend and protect Judah without Ahaz needing to go compromise himself through the pursuit of what passed for human wisdom and sensible foreign policy. The cost of Ahaz’s foolishness was high, but God remained faithful to Hezekiah and preserved a remnant of Judah. Yet YHWH’s presence among His people was only ultimately demonstrated through the embodiment of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth, and it is through Him that God provides the ultimate deliverance for all mankind. We can only obtain that deliverance by trusting in Him and doing what He says; attempting to establish the fulfillment of the promise through what passes for worldly wisdom is foolhardy and can only postpone the ultimate end and danger we all face. Let us be thankful for the Immanuel sign, and unlike Ahaz, let us put our full confidence in God and seek to serve Him and glorify His name through His Son Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Babel as Babylon

Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:9).

Throughout the Bible, which city or empire is used as an image to describe human power arrogating itself against God and God’s people?

You could make a strong case for Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites during the Exodus (Exodus 1:1-15:21). Pharaoh Neko II killed Josiah and considered Judah part of his empire; the final kings of Judah foolishly relied on Egyptian promises of assistance when they revolted against Babylon, and found themselves alone against the might of Babylon (2 Kings 23:28-25:21).

You could also make a strong case for Assyria. The Assyrians were universally feared and hated in the ancient Near East on account of their cruelty. They destroyed the kingdom of Israel and would exile most of its inhabitants; they invaded Judah, destroying all of the walled cities save Jerusalem, leaving Judah in a pitiful state (2 Kings 17:1-19:31, Isaiah 1:1-9).

You could make a case as well for Persia, the Seleucids, and the Romans, all of whom controlled the land of Israel. The Seleucids presented a great existential threat to the existence of Israel; the Romans defiled the Temple and would later destroy it and Jerusalem, making sure that no Jewish Temple would be built there again.

God did declare judgment on all of these nations and cities, but they are not used as images of human power arrogating itself against God and His people. In fact, God extends the promise of reconciliation and blessings upon Egypt and Assyria along with Israel in Isaiah 19:23-25! There is only one city-state empire for whom there is never any redemption in Scripture, only condemnation, and that is Babylon.

Babylon becomes the image of the human power arrogating itself against God and His empire. Isaiah, within his burden regarding Babylon, discusses the “day-star, the son of the morning,” who cut down the nations but was humbled in death (Isaiah 14:12-22; cf. Isaiah 13:1-14:22). Jeremiah, who lived to see when the Babylonians executed judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, thoroughly denounces Babylon and condemns them to their ultimate fate in Jeremiah 50:1-51:64. In the New Testament, the image is most likely attached to Rome, the current city-state empire arrogating against God and His people, rendering judgment on Judea and Jerusalem (cf. 1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 17:1-18:24).

But why Babylon? The Neo-Babylonian Empire under the Chaldeans did not last long, and was not nearly as brutal as the Assyrian menace. The fact that the Babylonians were the ones to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH is likely partly behind the choice. Yet perhaps another part of the answer goes far back in time to the beginnings of Babylon.

We are introduced to an individual named Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-12. He is considered a mighty hunter before YHWH, and he is responsible for building cities and ruling over them, particularly the area of the land of Shinar and places northwest. The list of cities are all in Mesopotamia, mostly found in modern-day Iraq, and made up ancient Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, Resin. He is the first person who has a “kingdom,” and thus is the first “king” described in Scripture. And if he is responsible for building and ruling over Babel, then he very well might have something to do with the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11:1-9.

The Tower of Babel is the representation of human effort directed toward his own self-glorification and honor, his quest for unity by his own works and effort independent from and often hostile to the purposes of God (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). God frustrated the effort by confusing the languages of humanity, and from Babel all humanity separated and went their own way (Genesis 11:7-9). From Babel all men spread forth; ever since, man has been trying to use power to control everyone else. The ideals of Babel remain their ideals, and they will seek to achieve a name for themselves and unity by the sword and their own ingenuity. It all started at Babel.

In Hebrew, Babel means “confusion”; hence, Babel’s name is a reminder of the confusion that exists among different groups of people. Our modern Bibles, though, ironically provide a bit of confusion when it comes to the name of Babel. Our Bibles distinguish between “Babel” and “Babylon,” the latter being the Greek word for the city in Mesopotamia. In Hebrew, they are both “Babel.” Babel is Babylon, and Babylon is Babel.

Therefore, Babylon is where man exhibits the desire to glorify himself by his own works and to maintain unity by such an end. All people scatter, confused, from Babylon. It seems likely that Nimrod began his empire-building from Babel/Babylon, and kingship and power exerted over others therefore began at Babylon. Thus, when Babylon will rise as a mighty world power, defeating the Assyrians and the Egyptians, conquering Judah and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and exiling the Israelites, she is simply re-establishing what she was from the beginning, and to which every empire between and since has aspired. Humans keep wanting to make a name for themselves and to do so together under the pretense of unity, and seek to impose their values and ways as the means of accomplishing that unity through sheer power. Babylon’s power is an extension of the aspiration inherent in the Tower of Babel; it therefore must arrogate itself against God and His people who seek not their own glory, not the advancement of human purposes, but of God and His purposes.

Perhaps many Israelites remembered the story of the Tower of Babylon as they were brought into exile into Babylon; perhaps it gave some of them strength to maintain their faith in God, fully confident that this power arrogating itself against God would fail. The Neo-Babylonian Empire did fall, but the Persian one ruled in its place. Then came the Greeks and the Romans; in the east, then came the Muslims, Turks, Mongols, and Ottomans, and in the west, the German tribes, the “Holy Roman Empire,” the Spanish Empire, the French, the British, Napoleon, Hitler, and Communism, among others. Today there is the United States, China, and other powerful nations. We can seem to find shadows of Babylon in each of them; the human world power arrogating itself against God, His people, and His purposes seems ever-present.

True victory has never come through a world power and never will. The true victory must somehow transcend these human aspirations so as to return to God’s intentions for humanity. The true victory represents the Anti-Babel, and we find Jesus and His Kingdom standing as the Anti-Babel. It is Jesus’ Kingdom which Daniel sees as the rock which smashes world empires to pieces (cf. Daniel 2:31-45). World empires, or “Babylon,” are out for more land; Jesus’ Kingdom has no need for land, for it is not of this world (John 18:36). “Babylon” seeks to unify different nations through force, violence, coercion, or economic interest; Jesus’ Kingdom unifies through the killing of hostility among people, emphasizing their shared purpose in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). “Babylon” uses great works to glorify humanity and to exert its own power, draining the resources of other nations to vaunt itself; Jesus’ Kingdom provides benefits for others, seeking not to glorify itself but the God who established it (Matthew 20:25-28, Galatians 2:10, 2:20-21, 6:10). “Babylon” is arrogant and arrogates itself against others; Jesus’ Kingdom is modeled on Jesus who humbled Himself, serving others, and in so doing receiving exaltation and glory (Philippians 2:5-11). “Babylon” keeps changing, with different empires rising and falling; Jesus’ Kingdom has endured for two thousand years and remains strong.

As long as man continues to exist on earth there will be some “Babylon” of a power, arrogating itself against God and His purposes, aspiring to the same goals frustrated on the plain of Shinar so long ago. The endeavor will never really succeed; the power of empire always has its limits, and it uses the wrong means to accomplish the wrong ends. No one finds salvation in “Babylon”; people must flee from “Babylon” to “Zion,” or to God and His purposes reflected in Jesus, to obtain salvation (cf. Jeremiah 51:6, Hebrews 12:22-24). Every “Babylon” and group of people who use the methods of “Babylon” will fail and perish (1 John 2:15-17); only Jesus’ Kingdom will endure for eternity (Daniel 2:44). Let us flee from “Babylon,” not putting our trust in worldly power and its trappings, and let us entrust ourselves to God in Christ, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Nationalism

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Many parts of Jonah’s story are well-known: he ran from the presence of God, trying to sail far away; he was caught in a large, fierce storm; he was swallowed by a big fish of some sort, saving his life; he eventually goes to Nineveh as commanded, and the people there repent of their sins (Jonah 1:1-3:10). It sometimes seems as if the biggest controversy in the story of Jonah involves what type of sea creature swallowed him and the credibility of such a story.

To focus on the large fish, however, is to miss the point of the story. Why is Jonah fleeing from the LORD in the first place? What is the problem with the command to go to Nineveh and to cry against it (Jonah 1:2)?

It would be easy to imagine that Jonah was fearful for his safety; perhaps, if we felt charitable toward him, we might imagine that he did not want to see so many people suffer the consequences of their sin. Yet Jonah does not seem to be afraid of the Ninevites, nor is he distressed at the possibility of so many being destroyed. Sadly, alas, the real reason is far more disturbing: Jonah flees because he does not want to see God relent of the disaster He intends for Nineveh.

Few statements in Scripture are as ironic as Jonah’s complaint before YHWH: “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). Most people, when considering these attributes of God, are quite thankful; where would any of us be if God were not gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness? Is Jonah ungrateful?

It is not as if Jonah does not appreciate God’s graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, and lovingkindness when it is directed toward himself and his fellow Israelites. He does not, however, want to see those same qualities exhibited toward the Ninevites.

Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, and their capital during many periods of their history. All evidence points to its mammoth size and thus level of importance: a city requiring a three days’ journey to go through is quite a city indeed (Jonah 3:3). Such a place was only possible on account of the empire the Assyrians were building, and they were quite brutal about it. Few nations have proven more bloodthirsty or barbarous than the Assyrians. No one really liked them. Everyone feared them. Eventually, when their empire did come to an end, no one was very sorry to see it go.

The Israelites had all sorts of justifiable reasons for hating the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a perennial enemy, threatening Israel’s stability for most of its existence. The Assyrians would eventually overrun the Kingdom of Israel, absorbing it into their empire, exiling most of its residence, and re-populating the land with foreigners (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-41). The Assyrians would spread their campaign of terror to Judah as well; Jerusalem barely escapes thanks to God’s deliverance (2 Kings 18:13-19:36, Isaiah 1:1-9). One could make a strong argument that Assyria was the most devastating enemy Israel ever faced.

As a prophet in the final moment of sunshine in the history of the Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), it is highly likely that Jonah knew the impending doom for his people; even if God had not specifically revealed to him who would be the agent of Israel’s demise, it would not be difficult to deduce who it would be. Thus, YHWH is asking Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to Israel’s greatest enemy, the strongest threat to the homeland, and the ultimate agent of God’s wrath against Israel.

Jonah’s anger, while still worthy of censure, is nevertheless now understandable. It is of the greatest strategic benefit for Israel and its welfare if God destroys Nineveh and its people; as the greatest existential threat to Israel, God’s covenant people, it should almost be expected for God to destroy them. But Jonah has an inkling of what will happen; he cannot endure the paradoxes. A prophet of Israel who was likely mostly ignored at home is heard and heeded by uncircumcised pagans; God relents of the decision to bring disaster upon Nineveh, but will ultimately not relent of the decision to bring disaster upon Israel; God saves the very people who will bring great destruction upon His people within three generations. As a good Israelite, fully aware of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel His people, confident in YHWH’s sovereignty, likely proud of his status as a member of God’s covenant people, this seems too much to stomach.

Jonah is made to look rather narrow-minded and prejudiced in Jonah 4:1-11, and that is precisely the point of the whole story of Jonah. Throughout the story, God is faithful, even though Jonah most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Jonah would have been destroyed; he repented, and God rescued him, but he could not stand the idea of God doing the same to the Ninevites. Yet God is consistent throughout, for He is Sovereign, Lord of all nations, not just Israel.

We should not beat up too much on Jonah, for Jonah in many ways represents his entire nation. Everything said of Jonah is true of Israel: God consistently proved faithful to Israel even though Israel most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Israel would have never left Egypt, and would have been given over to destruction long before. When Israel repented, God rescued His nation, but Israel could not stand the idea of God providing such favor to the heathen pagans.

Jonah’s story is told to warn all of us of the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that often accompanies fervent nationalism. It is very easy for us to look at everything through the lens of the welfare of the particular nation-state under which we live; it is easy to want what is best for our country and our ideology, and the idea that other nation-states, countries, and/or people with other ideas could be blessed by God can seem intolerable. “We” appreciate the blessings and favor of God; but when “they” would receive those same blessings and favor, we might be tempted to be as Jonah, and be angry about it.

Nevertheless, God is not merely the God of one nation; He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples, countries, nationalities, and cultures. He wants to show lovingkindness, grace, patience, and mercy to everyone, not just a select few (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Let us be thankful that God has displayed love, mercy, and kindness toward us, and let us not begrudge others when He displays the same to them as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Enemy of My Enemy

At that time Berodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present unto Hezekiah; for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick. And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and showed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and the house of his armor, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah showed them not.
Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, “What said these men? And from whence came they unto thee?”
And Hezekiah said, “They are come from a far country, even from Babylon.”
And he said, “What have they seen in thy house?”
And Hezekiah answered, “All that is in my house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not showed them.”
And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD. Behold, the days come, that all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith Jehovah. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, whom thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, “Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken.”
He said moreover, “Is it not so, if peace and truth shall be in my days?” (2 Kings 20:12-19).

“The enemy of my enemy…”

When we think of this quote, we quickly supply the way it often is completed: “…is my friend.” Such has been the prevailing political logic for generations, and yet it led Israel into all sorts of problems!

There is much more going on in 2 Kings 20:12-19 than what appears on the surface. The Kings author honors Hezekiah greatly as loyal to YHWH, attempting to rid the land of idolatry and encouraging the people to honor YHWH as the One True God, the God of Israel (2 Kings 18:1-8). As that all goes, well and good, but as 2 Kings 18:13-20:37 shows, Hezekiah has a major problem: the Assyrians invade Judah, destroy all of the major fortified cities save Jerusalem, and it only survived because of God’s intervention during the siege.

The Assyrians invaded because Hezekiah ceased paying tribute and actively rebelled against Assyrian hegemony by attempting to establish alliances with Egypt and Babylon against the Assyrians. We are not told what political machinations and calculations were involved and why Hezekiah felt so confident in going against Assyria, but the results were evident. The Kingdom of Judah barely escaped complete annihilation, having been functionally abandoned by its erstwhile allies in the face of the Assyrian onslaught.

Why would Hezekiah ally himself with Egypt, the former oppressor of Israel? Why does Hezekiah feel so open in showing everything he has to the Babylonian ambassadors? We are not explicitly told, but Hezekiah’s answer to Isaiah’s declaration provides us with some indications. Isaiah declares how God is going to give over to the Babylonians everything they saw; Hezekiah seems relatively untroubled by the statement since things will be well during his own day (cf. 2 Kings 20:16-19). Hezekiah sees his short-term problem: the kingdom of Assyria is ascendant. The Assyrian Empire is now literally at his border, having conquered the Kingdom of Israel to the north (2 Kings 18:9-12). Judah now has a place of prominence in international affairs, courted by Egypt and Babylon to be a fellow ally against the Assyrian power. Hezekiah was willing to make the enemies of his enemy Assyria his friends.

It did prove to be a great short-term decision: Hezekiah’s son Manasseh ruled over a politically peaceful and economically prosperous Judah despite his spiritual depravity, and Josiah his great-grandson would be able to exercise authority over all of the historic land of Israel. And yet Hezekiah’s short-term political calculations now began to cost the kingdom greatly. The Assyrian power diminished far quicker than anyone could have ever imagined, and now Babylon was the ascendant power. Judah still maintained an alliance with Babylon; it was because of this alliance that Josiah went out to intercept Pharaoh Neko II as the latter was traveling north to fight against Nebuchadnezzar to determine who was going to be the new authority in the Near East. Josiah would die in that battle (2 Kings 23:28-30), and Neko would lose to Nebuchadnezzar at the Battle of Carchemish. For the next twenty years Judah found itself trapped between its two former allies in a power struggle; the kings of Judah seemed to prefer being allied with near Egypt than faraway Babylon, and ultimately proved Isaiah’s prophecy as true: Nebuchadnezzar sent his forces to Judah, the erstwhile Egyptian ally helped once but no more, and Jerusalem was destroyed, its people and wealth exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21). The enemies of Israel’s enemy may have been “friends” in the short-term, but Israel paid dearly in the long-term.

Did Israel learn a lesson from this? It does not seem like it. During the “intertestamental” period, the Israelites were part of the Seleucid Empire and were fighting for their lives and their identity as Daniel predicted in Daniel 11:1-45 in the middle of the second century BCE. The apocryphal book 1 Maccabees tells us about these events; the book is not inspired of God as Scripture but is generally regarded as reliable witness to history. As the Jews are fighting these Greeks, they seek to make an alliance with a fellow enemy of the Seleucid Empire: Rome (1 Maccabees 8:1-32). It is worth noting the attitude of the author of 1 Maccabees toward the Romans:

It was told [Judah the Maccabee, leader of the insurgency against the Seleucids] besides, how [the Romans] destroyed and brought under their dominion all other kingdoms and isles that at any time resisted them; But with their friends and such as relied upon them they kept amity: and that they had conquered kingdoms both far and nigh, insomuch as all that heard of their name were afraid of them: Also that, whom they would help to a kingdom, those reign; and whom again they would, they displace: finally, that they were greatly exalted: Yet for all this none of them wore a crown or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby: Moreover how they had made for themselves a senate house, wherein three hundred and twenty men sat in council daily, consulting alway for the people, to the end they might be well ordered: And that they committed their government to one man every year, who ruled over all their country, and that all were obedient to that one, and that there was neither envy nor emulation among them (1 Maccabees 8:11-16).

We see nothing but praise here for the Romans: their ability in warfare, their honoring of treaties, their republican form of government. The Jews made a treaty with the Romans to assist them in their conflict against the Seleucids.

It was part of a great short-term strategy: the Seleucids had to take the Roman threat seriously. For about a hundred years the Maccabees provided a measure of freedom to Israel not seen since the days of Zedekiah and which would not be seen again until 1947 of our own era. But we know what happens in the long-term. The Romans seemed so far away in 160 BCE; a hundred years later, their republican form of government was transitioning into an imperial mode of government, and Pompey their general was taking over the Seleucid Empire and was welcomed into Jerusalem in the midst of a feud between two Maccabean descendants vying for the throne. The Romans would rule in Jerusalem, raising up the reviled half-breed Herod and his clan over the Jews; when the indignities perpetrated by the Romans could be tolerated no longer, the Jews rose up in revolt against the Romans, and yet again they saw their city and Temple destroyed, the latter to never be built again. Yet again, the enemy of Israel’s enemy might have been a decent short-term “friend,” but proved disastrous in the long-term.

Let us learn from Israel’s experience. There are many times when it seems beneficial to take up a common cause with people under the justification of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the common enemy is vanquished? Will we find that our alliance has now placed us in a most compromising position, and we are in a relative position of weakness and not strength? Could we be overtaken because we have made an alliance choice on the basis of a common enemy rather than a common goal?

What right did Israel have uniting with Babylon, Egypt, and Rome? It seemed to make sense at the time; there were some great short-term results; but the end proved disastrous. The enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy; what interest does the enemy of my enemy have in me, especially once our common enemy is gone? Let us be careful about our choices of whom we ally ourselves, lest we find ourselves compromised like Israel!

Ethan R. Longhenry