The Rabshakeh Strategy

I’ve been reading through 1 and 2 Kings recently, and last week I reached the story of the Rabshakeh in 2 Kings 18. It struck me that it is something of a parable for our age.

The story is set when Hezekiah is king of Judah. He is a rarity – a good king in a long line of dreadful rulers! He clears the high places, destroys the bronze serpent which had gone from being a gift from God for the healing of His people (and a foreshadowing of the cross, cf. Numbers 21; John 3:14-15) to an idol. He trusted God, and this trust was demonstrated particularly through his refusal to serve the king of Assyria (18:1-8).

At this point, the narrator switches to remind us of the parallel story about the northern Kingdom who, under the rule of Hoshea, had been taken captive by Assyria for their wickedness (18:9-12; cf. 17:1-6.)

In Hezekiah’s fourteenth year, Sennacherib the king of Assyria attacked the fortified cities of Judah, and in response Hezekiah paid the Assyrians with gold and silver from the Temple, to get them to leave (18:13-16). Then the King of Assyria sent three men to Hezekiah: the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh. The first two of these ranked highly in the Assyrian army. The Rabshakeh, however, seems to have been the ‘chief cupbearer’ to the King, or his personal attendant. The choice to send a cupbearer may initial appear strange, but it’s actually very strategic, since the Rabshakeh was a gifted linguist.

When he stood before Hezekiah’s men, the Rabshakeh delivered a message full of boasts, half-truths, and lies. He mocked Hezekiah’s strategy of trusting God; he dismissed any help they might get from Egypt; he claimed that Hezekiah had torn down God’s altars; he reminded them of all the other nations and gods who had been unable to withstand Assyria; he accused Hezekiah of deliberately deceiving the people; he promised them prosperity and land if they surrendered and gave allegiance to Assyria, and he even claimed that YHWH himself had sent Assyria to destroy Judah! (18:19-35)

Importantly, we’re told that the Rabshakeh delivered this message in Hebrew, not Aramaic, which was the language of Assyria. Hezekiah’s officials could speak Aramaic, but most of the people present wouldn’t have been able to. But when Hezekiah’s officials asked the Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic so the onlookers wouldn’t understand and be affected by his message, the Rabshakeh refused, and continued addressing the crowd in their native language (18:26-28)

This is a deliberate strategy, designed to divide Judah, by bypassing the religious and political leaders, and instead appealing to the common people – instilling them with doubt, division and fear, and tempting them to turn against their leaders and abandon their God.

And notice, the Rabshakeh did not simply use the native language of the people – Hebrew – but also their religious language. His promise to those who surrender to Assyria is that:

‘each one will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree’

2 Kings 18:31

This is the same language that Micah had prophesied to God’s people (Micah 4:4) and it’s the language that 1 Kings 4:25 used to describe life under the rule of Solomon. It may have been a common ancient idiom across cultures, but it carried a particular significance for Judah at this point in their history, since Micah had been prophesying this under the reign of Hezekiah and his predecessors (Micah 1:1).

What’s more, the promise of,

‘A land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, [where] you may live, and not die’

2 Kings 18:32

is strongly reminiscent of Deuteronomy 8:7-9; a covenant promise given to those who remain faithful to God.

In other words, the Rabshakeh knew how to speak not only their native language, but their prophetic, religious, and covenantal language. And he used those linguistic skills to tempt God’s people to break their covenant with YHWH.

This approach by Assyria was calculated and cunning, and were it not for an intervention from Isaiah, God, and the Angel of the Lord, it may have worked! (2 Kings 19; Isaiah 36-38)

Now, why do I think this is a parable for our age?

Politicians have got very good at using the Rabshakeh strategy. And Christians often fall for it hook, line and sinker.

For example, one of the things I find baffling is how so many ‘evangelicals’ could support Donald Trump. I don’t mean vote for him; I can understand some people feeling they had good reasons to do that, given the alternatives. But support him wholeheartedly, with a religious zeal? Of course, Trump is not the only example – this happens on the left and right, and on both sides of the Atlantic – but he is an obvious example of the Rabshakeh strategy:

  • Donald Trump came to power on a wave of populism, sowing division between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite.’
  • He addressed the common people in language they resonated with. He spoke the language of the people rather than the language of politics. And his use of social media (usually ALL IN CAPS) was his equivalent of the Rabshakeh raising his voice to shout over Hezekiah’s emissaries, to address the people on the walls.  
  • He created division through a cocktail of boasts, half-truths, and outright lies. He constantly misrepresented others and branded them as ‘fake news’, whilst making unsubstantiated claims about his own success.
  • He boasted about how great and powerful his nation was compared to all others, and how easily it could crush or destroy all other inferior nations.
  • He appealed to religious voters through use of religious jargon, biblical allusions, and outright claims to be on the side of God and His people. And it wasn’t just the language he used; it was the policies and promises that sounded like they embodied Christian values, but required believers to either turn a blind eye to other compromises, or to become complicit in them.
  • He claimed divine mandate for his rule, even whilst acting in ways that so clearly contravened the way of Christ. And his apologists did likewise! Like Sennacherib, Trump surrounded himself with people who could speak ‘Christian’ in order to win over that voting base. The raft of ‘evangelical’ supporters who preached about him, prophesied about him, raised money for him, blew ram’s horns for him, wrote children’s books about him, stormed buildings for him, wielded guns for him, advertised pillows for him, and claimed that nobody (except maybe Jesus) had done anything more for Christians than him, is astonishing. And sickening.

We could go on. We could of course reflect on examples from other nations, contexts and leaders. (And sadly we could make the same observations for a lot of what passes as Christian leadership too!) But the point is, the Rabshakeh strategy can be very effective. And in essence, it’s only an extension of the same strategy used by the serpent in Eden and the wilderness (Genesis 3; Matthew 4; Luke 4).

There’s a huge difference between being biblical and bibl-ish, and simply quoting the words of God, or speaking Christian-sounding language, does not make you a friend of God or His people.

Take ‘the vine and fig tree’ promise. It is undeniably a ‘biblical’ motif in that it appears multiple times in Scripture. But whether or not it’s a promise worth pursuing depends on who is making it! Is it the Lord through Micah, or Assyria through the Rabshakeh?

And when the promise is cited by modern voices – be they George Washington at the American Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton, or Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration – it’s not simply enough to say “look – they’re quoting the Bible – they must be one of us!” we need to ask whether they are citing it in the spirit of Micah or the Rabshakeh! Are they using the language of the Bible to call us towards faithfulness to Christ and the purposes of the Kingdom, or co-opting the language of the Bible to call us towards the agenda of another Kingdom entirely?

And if it’s the latter, then like Hezekiah, we need to reject the Rabshakeh strategy, and cry out in prayer:

“Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth… Listen to the words [this ruler] has sent to ridicule the living God… Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God.”

2 Kings 19:15-19

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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