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