Isaiah’s Nonviolence

Hezekiah Runs Out of Options

King Hezekiah faced a serious problem. The Assyrians had the most powerful military in the world and their power was growing. Conquering Israel was the next item on their agenda. The Assyrians didn’t just conquer their enemies – they waged a psychological warfare by torturing their victims. They were known for skinning people alive, ripping out intestines, and cutting off the testicles of those whom they captured. Their gruesome methods of war were designed to spread terror among anyone who might dare to oppose them and thus encourage them to submit to the power of the Assyrians without resistance. We could refer to them as one of the world’s first terrorist organizations.

As would be expected, the people of Israel took notice. All eyes were on King Hezekiah. What would King Hezekiah do to keep his people safe from this impending threat?

Hezekiah basically had two options in front of him. The first option would be to simply submit to the Assyrians. He could wave the white flag and welcome them in with a handshake and an alliance. Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, had used this strategy to keep the peace with Assyria (2 Kings 16 and 2 Chron. 28). This first option had kept Israel safe for the time being, but it had resulted in very high tributes that had to be paid to the Assyrians. And even still, it failed to eliminate their ever growing threat. Initially, Hezekiah tried this strategy as well (2 Kings 18:14-16). But it soon became clear that option one was a failure. Assyria wanted blood.

So Hezekiah then looked to option two. Fight. If paying heavy tribute was not enough to keep the peace, Hezekiah could turn to the second most powerful military in the world, the Egyptians, and make a military alliance with them. Perhaps the Israelites and the Egyptians together would be able to fight off the Assyrian threat. Yet when push came to shove, Egypt let Israel down and proved to be a most disappointing ally.

Isaiah’s Wartime Message

It was during this time that Isaiah lived and preached his message of nonviolence. Isaiah’s continual rebuke of Israel’s trust in military power, chariots, horses, weapons, and human governments is a major theme throughout his message. Isaiah 1-39 addresses the basic question of “How should Israel respond faithfully to God in light of Assyria’s growing threat?”

Consider a few of these highlights from Isaiah’s message:

He rebuked Israel for depending on their own resources and their own strength. Their plan included filling the valley with chariots, tearing down the houses in Jerusalem to fortify their walls, all while depending on the pools of water within the city to sustain them, but they did not depend on Him who made the pools.

For the Lord GOD of hosts has a day of panic, subjugation and confusion
In the valley of vision,
A breaking down of walls
And a crying to the mountain.
Elam took up the quiver
With chariots, infantry and horsemen;
And Kir uncovered the shield.
Then your choicest valleys were full of chariots,
And the horsemen took up fixed positions at the gate.
And he removed the defense of Judah.
In that day you depended on the weapons of the house of the forest,
And you saw that the breaches
In the wall of the city of David were many;
And you collected the waters of the lower pool.
Then you counted the houses of Jerusalem
And tore down the houses to fortify your wall.
And you made a reservoir between the two walls
For the waters of the old pool.
But you did not depend on Him who made it,
Nor did you take into consideration Him who planned it long ago. – Isaiah 22.5-11

He rebuked Israel for trusting in the intervention of Egypt rather than trusting in God. According to Isaiah, to misplace our faith is to sin, and it will only bring shame and humiliation.

“Woe to the rebellious children,” declares the LORD,
Who execute a plan, but not Mine,
And make an alliance, but not of My Spirit,
In order to add sin to sin;
Who proceed down to Egypt
Without consulting Me,
To take refuge in the safety of Pharoah
And to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
Therefore the safety of Pharaoh will be your shame
And the shelter in the shadow of Egypt, your humiliation.” – Isaiah 30.1-3

Again, Isaiah pronounced woe on those who would “go down” to rely on Egypt. Turning to military protection was faithless, foolish, and needless.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
And rely on horses,
And trust in chariots because they are many
And in strong horsemen because they are very strong,
But do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the LORD!
Yet He also is wise and will bring disaster,
And does not retract His words,
But will arise against the house of evildoers
And against the help of the workers of iniquity.
Now the Egyptians are men and not God,
And their horses are flesh and not spirit;
So the LORD will stretch out His hand,
And he who helps will stumble
And he who is helped will fall,
And all of them will come to an end together.

For thus says the LORD to me,
“As the lion or the young lion growls over his prey,
Against which a band of shepherds is called out,
And he will not be terrified at their voice nor disturbed at their noise,
So will the LORD of hosts come down to wage war on Mount Zion and on its hill.”
Like flying birds so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem.
He will protect it and deliver it;
He will pass over and rescue it.” – Isaiah 31.1-5

With the two options lying before Hezekiah, Isaiah continually rebukes Israel for misplaced trust. King Ahaz showed a lack of trust by giving into the demands of the Assyrians. King Hezekiah showed a lack of trust by trusting in the military strength of Egypt.

A Third Option

What would Isaiah have Israel to do then? What option is left? Should Israel just stand by and do nothing, and watch their people suffer, all while holding tight to a naïve ideal of pacifism?

Isaiah’s non-violent message was not popular among those who were infatuated with thinking only of “realistic” options. But Isaiah’s suggested strategy was clear: Trust in God.

After seeing that all other options were doomed to fail, Hezekiah finally did what he should have done in the first place. He prayed:

O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth… Now, O LORD our God, deliver us from his hand that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God. – Isaiah 37.16, 20

Immediately, Isaiah’s prayer was answered. God sent the angel of the LORD who went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. Those who were left fled home to Assyria. Israel never had to draw a sword. God protected His people.

Although Isaiah believed that Israel’s military hopes would ultimately fail in bringing peace, he did not teach a “do nothing” strategy, nor did he teach that they should just let the innocent suffer while sitting by passively. Far from it. Israel was not expected to just waive the white flag, all while “trusting in God.”

On the other hand, when Isaiah taught Israel to “trust in God”, this was NOT a shorthand way of saying “use whatever strategy seems best to you, because if you trust in God while you do it you will be blessed.” To execute their own plan of alliance with Egypt while claiming to “trust in God” was condemned as sinful.

According to Isaiah, trusting in God meant faithfully executing His plans. Isaiah expected Israel to trust in the actions which God had commanded them to take.

So Hezekiah faithfully took action. He hit his knees in prayer. As a result, the Assyrians were slaughtered. The innocent were protected. Isaiah believed that safety and peace would come, not from the sword of man, but from the wrath of God.

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord.- Romans 12.19

God protects his people with His might, not theirs.

Peace Perfect Peace

There were times in Israel’s history, such as in the conquest of the Promised Land, when God divinely sanctioned a limited degree of warfare by which he drove out the wicked, violence-loving nations that previously occupied the land. But by Isaiah’s day, Israel had morphed into a war-loving nation that was similar to those which were originally driven out. They had lost sight of the God who created the world, who had defeated the Egyptians in the Red Sea, and who continually showed Himself faithful to those who trusted in Him. Peace, perfect peace, can only come by keeping our minds firmly set on the divine protection that only God can bring.

God’s people had two options before them, but the real options were not choosing between “making an alliance” or “fighting”. The real choice was between trusting in man or trusting in God. Trust cannot be placed in both. The two options are antagonistic towards one another. Yet in light of this choice, we are given a promise:

“The steadfast mind You will keep in perfect peace,
Because He trusts in you.” – Isaiah 26.2

If the right choice is made the result will be peace. Perfect peace.