Who was Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, in the Bible?
Sennacherib was the king of Assyria who reigned from 705 BC to 681 BC and threatened Jerusalem while Hezekiah was king of Judah. Sennacherib is remembered as a violent and brutal king. He conquered many cities and, as was the Assyrian custom, then deported conquered peoples throughout the kingdom in order to annihilate their distinct cultures. He installed his son to rule in the city of Babylon, but the Babylonians rebelled and killed his son. In retaliation, Sennacherib completely destroyed Babylon in 689 BC. He is also remembered for moving the capital of Assyria from Nimrud to Nineveh and for constructing walls, temples, and a palace garden there during the city's renovation and expansion to make it a worthy capital. After the death of his son in Babylon, Sennacherib announced that one of his younger sons, Esarhaddon, was to succeed him as king, which angered two of his older sons. Those older sons then murdered Sennacherib while he was worshipping in the temple of the false god Nisroch, thereby ending his reign prematurely. The two older sons then fled, and Esarhaddon was installed as the next king just as Sennacherib had prescribed.
In the Bible, we hear only of Sennacherib's threat to invade Jerusalem, how God protected the city, and about Sennacherib's eventual demise. This account can be found in 2 Kings 18:13—19:37, Isaiah 36—37, and 2 Chronicles 32. Sennacherib sent his servants to instruct king Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem to surrender to him in order to avoid being conquered like the numerous other cities and people groups Sennacherib had already defeated (2 Kings 18:13–35). In this message, Sennacherib posited that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, would not be able to protect Jerusalem just like the false gods of other cities did not protect those cities from Assyrian conquest (2 Kings 18:32–35).
When Hezekiah heard this threat to the city and the insult to God, he tore his clothes and went to the temple. He also sent word to the prophet Isaiah (2 Kings 19:1–4), who responded with an encouraging word from the Lord (2 Kings 19:5–7). Sennacherib again sent messengers to Hezekiah warning him against trusting the Lord. Hezekiah spread the letter out before the Lord and prayed. Both he and Isaiah cried out in prayer (2 Chronicles 32:20). Isaiah was given a word from the Lord about Sennacherib, highlighting Sennacherib's pride and mockery of God. God said that it was Him who had determined Sennacherib's previous conquests and that "Because you [Sennacherib] have raged against me [God] and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came" (2 Kings 19:28). Isaiah was given word that the Lord would rescue Jerusalem so that Sennacherib would never enter the city or even build a siege ramp against it (2 Kings 19:32–34). In fact, "that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh" (2 Kings 19:35–36).
God did, indeed, protect Jerusalem and thereby protect His reputation as the most powerful and only true God who is sovereign over all earthly rulers and any false gods people might be tempted to trust in or worship. Unfortunately, even this defeat by the one true God was not enough to turn Sennacherib from his worship of false idols. Isaiah 37:38a records, "And as he [Sennacherib] was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword."
While Sennacherib was not convinced of Yahweh's worthiness to be worshipped for protecting Jerusalem, the people in Judah certainly recognized God's mighty act. Second Chronicles 32:22–23a states, "So the LORD saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all his enemies, and he provided for them on every side. And many brought gifts to the LORD to Jerusalem."
When Hezekiah had prayed for deliverance from Sennacherib, he did not ask for the sake of the comfort and ease of his people, but rather he appealed to God on behalf of God's reputation. He said, "So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone" (2 Kings 19:19). Hezekiah wanted God to get the glory of rescuing Jerusalem especially in contrast to the false gods who could not rescue previously conquered cities. When God responded, He said, "For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David" (2 Kings 19:34). God defended Jerusalem against the proud Sennacherib to display His own strength and glory as well as His faithfulness in keeping His promises.
What a challenge—that when we pray it should be not for our own comfort and ease, but rather for God to display His glory, strength, and faithfulness in our lives so that others may know Him better! And what a comfort to know that Yahweh is the one true God sovereign over all earthly rulers able to deliver us in our time of need!
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