Wednesday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

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

Today we have powerful passage from Isaiah, 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, the rod of my anger—
the club in their hands is my fury!

He says this because what Assyria does is wicked and evil.  Isaiah is probably referring to Sennacherib at the time of his invasion in 701 BC. It is “the rod of [God’s] anger” because 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:

…o take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

Maybe Sennacherib believed this was all his own strategy – but no:

…this is not what he intends,
nor does he have this in mind…

The Assyrian’s aim was:

…to destroy
and to cut off nations not a few.

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 (in a verse left out):

Are not my commanders all kings? (Is 10:8)

As he made one conquest after another, he put his commanders as rulers of vanquished territories:

Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus? (Is 10:9)

In this verse, he lists off the cities that have 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:

I have removed the boundaries of peoples
and have plundered their treasures;
…I have brought down those who sat on thrones.

In language filled with contempt for his opponents he boasts:

…as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth,
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened its mouth or chirped.

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 hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding…

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. The prophet says:

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it
or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?

Sennacherib in God’s hands.

And so his ultimate impotence is revealed when some sort 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 (2 Kings 19:35).

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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