Friday, May 30, 2014

Rab-shakeh v. Micah, or We're All Fence-Sitters

Rab-shakeh has long been my favorite Old Testament villain. When he shows up outside Jersualem to  threaten Hezekiah, King of Judah, he delivers a delightfully arrogant speech demanding immediate surrender. And because he speaks for the Assyrian army (which has just taken the kingdom of Israel into captivity), everyone knows that he can walk the walk. In fact, Hezekiah's military leaders are so worried that ordinary Jews within earshot of Rab-shakeh will flee to enemy lines that they plead, "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall" (2 Kgs. 18:26). Rab-shakeh is . . . not the sort of man to honor such a request: "Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?" (2 Kgs. 18:27).

Then, speaking in Hebrew so that all can understand, he offers the average Jew a chance to surrender and receive the protection of Assyria: "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me, and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern: until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey, that ye may live, and not die: and hearken not unto Hezekiah ,when he persuadeth you, saying, The Lord will deliver us" (2 Kgs. 18:31-32). Throw your lot in with the Assyrians, Rab-shakeh promises, and you'll never go hungry again!
But God provides a prophetic counterpoint to the seductive rhetoric of Rab-shakeh. When Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah who preached during the reign of Hezekiah (Micah 1:1), describes the millennium in what is his most famous prophecy, he speaks in response to Rab-shakeh's threats and promises. Micah describes the Second Coming, when the Messiah "shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not life up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree: and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it" (Micah 4:3-4). These promises, that the Messiah will cow imperial bullies like Assyria, that every man will eat of his own vine and fig tree, that no one will cause God's people to fear: these promises are offered in a direct response to Rab-shakeh in language that recalls Rab-shakeh's promises (especially the vine and fig tree).

Recognizing that Micah and Rab-shakeh are contemporaries, that they are making competing promises to the besieged inhabitants of Judah, completely changes the meaning of both accounts for me. The story of Rab-shakeh is not just that of a blaspheming bully who gets his in the end (although he does, along with 184,999 other Assyrians; just see 2 Kgs. 19:35); rather it's the story of those individual Jews on the wall who can hear Rab-shakeh's promise and have to weigh that promise against the promise of Micah. The story of Rab-shakeh, in other words, is a story of choice: do you trust in the immediate (and seemingly inevitable) victory of Rab-shakeh or do you trust in the divine deliverance and peace promised by Micah--who can't even guarantee that you'll still be alive to sit under your vine and fig tree when the Messiah comes?

It's the same choice that we face on a daily basis, albeit in different forms. What do we rely on for peace and prosperity? On worldly wisdom with a proven track record of delivering worldly wealth or on divine promises that admit we probably won't receive our reward until after this life? Rab-shakeh's offer must have seemed compelling, and I think that's why his blasphemous speech was left in the Bible, unredacted, because it's a reminder that no matter how persuasive and urgent a Rab-shakeh's promises may be, only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can be depended on to fulfill his promises. Temporal powers fail. Armies--like the Assyrian army--are surprisingly and unpredictably defeated. That's a hard lesson to remember as we--like those Jews--sit on the proverbial wall (fence) and struggle to decide whose side we're on, who to believe.

Just remember: Rab-shakeh's persuasive tongue didn't keep him from the destroying angel, and I imagine that any fence-sitting Jews who threw their lot in with the Assyrians also suffered the consequences. We all sit on the fence every day; the trick is to make sure that we make sure we find our way to the side of Micah and the prophets.