Wednesday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 10:5-7, 13-16

A powerful passage today, full of eloquently poetic images but with one very simple message: the Lord God is master of all that happens.  On the face of it, the conquests of Assyria (and later of Babylon) seemed to be the work of a powerful empire.  Yet, in truth, Assyria, for all its power, is in the prophet’s eyes merely the unwitting instrument of God.

So the prophet cries in God’s name, “Woe to Assyria!”, for what it does is wicked and evil.  Isaiah is probably referring to Sennacherib at the time of his invasion in 701 BC. At the same time, it is “the rod of God’s anger”. It is an instrument unknowingly doing the work of the God in which it does not believe.  Later on, Babylon will play the same role.

Assyria is being sent “against a godless nation”, namely, God’s own people in Judah who have turned their backs on their Lord to indulge in idolatry and immorality.  It is with the Lord’s permission that the Assyrians under Sennacherib pillage and plunder and “stamp the people down like the mud in the streets”.

Maybe Sennacherib believed this was all his own strategy – but no.  “He did not intend this, his heart did not plan it so.”  The Assyrian’s aim was to destroy, “to go on cutting nations to pieces without limit” but, in reality, he was bringing the punishment on Judah which its sinfulness had merited.

Not aware of the supporting role he was playing in a bigger drama, he makes his boasts, “Are not my commanders all kings?”  As he made one conquest after another, he put his commanders as rulers of vanquished territories.  “Is not Calno like Carchemish, Hamath like Arpad, Samaria like Damascus” as he lists off the cities that have now become part of Assyrian territory.

And what he has done to other idolatrous territories, will he not do the same to Jerusalem and its idolatrous images?  And so he continues with one boast after another.  He had “pushed back the frontiers of peoples and plundered their treasures” and “brought their inhabitants down to the dust”.

In language filled with contempt for his opponents he boasts:

As people pick up deserted eggs,
I have picked up the whole earth,
with not a wing fluttering,
not a beak opening, not a chirp.

Altogether in his statement Sennacherib refers to himself nine times. He really believed all that happened was his own doing: “By the strength of my own arm I have done this, and by my wisdom, for I am shrewd…”  However, as a godless people, Assyria’s lot would be no better than those it was trying to crush (it appears reminiscence of the arrogance of Hitler at the height of the Nazi regime).

Sennacherib’s power is all an illusion.  “Does the axe claim more credit than the man who wields it?…  It would be like the cudgel controlling the man who raises it…”  So is Sennacherib in God’s hands.

And so his ultimate impotence is revealed when a “wasting sickness”, probably some kind of rapidly spreading plague, brought death to 185,000 of his troops in 701 BC as they prepared to lay siege to Jerusalem, forcing him to withdraw.
Again we have to read this passage with care.  In some ways, there are natural explanations for all that happened both to the Assyrians and God’s people.  We need to avoid the image of a vindictive God who hits back at his disobedient people by bringing terrible calamities on them. The principal message is rather that ultimately everything comes from God and we are – as  Paul would say – like putty in his hands.

The message for God’s people is that, by turning their back on him, they will gain nothing and lose everything.  This applied equally to the Assyrian conquerors and the defeated people of Judah.  Even the most powerful people in our society ultimately have feet of clay and can be brought down by the simplest of things (like an invisible virus). Yet, how many of us, sometimes in small and silly ways, think that we can wield power and seek to have power over others.

True life and true happiness consists in our being at all times malleable instruments in God’s hands bringing life and happiness to others.

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