Hezekiah’s Response to Death & Threat of Assyrian Siege Warfare: Isaiah 38:1-22

God is faithful

It is amazing the vast difference that exists between two people, when one of them puts their hope, faith, and trust in God and the other one wants nothing to do with the Lord. This was the scenario played out in the book of Isaiah as King Ahaz did not have a relationship with the Lord, therefore, he did not trust Him. As a result, when Israel formed an alliance with Syria to attack Judah, king Ahaz decided to place his trust in man (the king of Assyria) and military alliances and while it may have spared Judah from the immediate threat of attack, it would ultimately invite disaster upon Judah in the future. However, his son, king Hezekiah did have a good relationship with the Lord and he was used mightily by God to bring protection and blessing on the kingdom of Judah. In Isaiah 38:1-22, we find ourselves in the middle of Hezekiah’s narrative. Prior to this chapter, the nation of Assyria who had made an alliance with king Ahaz was now attacking Judah, the very nation they vowed to protect, so it seems the sins of the father were attempting to visit the son, but king Hezekiah did not do what his father would have done. Instead of turning to man or alliances in the presence of danger, he turned to God in faith and prayer, despite the immense fear he and his people were experiencing, especially at the prospect of siege warfare, which could last for months or even years. In a letter, the Assyrians demanded the complete and unconditional surrender of the city of Jerusalem, so Hezekiah takes this letter before God and asks the Lord to deliver them. As a result of this faith and prayer, the Lord instructs Isaiah to go before Hezekiah to deliver a “fear not” message and that God would give Hezekiah a sign that his message was received loud and clear and that the Lord had the situation under control. That evening, the angel of the Lord swept throughout Sennacherib’s encampment killing 180,000 soldiers without a single arrow being fired into the city of Jerusalem.

Understanding how and why the narratives of king Ahaz and king Hezekiah compare and contrast each other is very important to understanding the overall message of the book of Isaiah. On the heels of Judah’s miraculous deliverance in chapter 37, chapter 38 presents Hezekiah with a fatal illness and the Lord instructs Isaiah in v. 1 to go and tell Hezekiah he better get his affairs in order “for you shall die, you shall not recover, thus says the LORD” (Isaiah 38:1).

***I do not know about you, but I would be thinking, “Well dang! I thought we really had something good going here God. Am I missing something or did I do something wrong?”***


After king Hezekiah receives this word from the Lord, his reaction reveals his true character. See, Hezekiah was an honorable man, he was determined to do good in the eyes of the Lord, he followed, trusted, and obeyed the Lord and because of that, the Lord blessed and honored Him in return. In our trials or dire circumstances, character is developed and God uses these tests to teach us patience, endurance, and faith. In fact, trials not only teach character; they also reveal it. With Ahaz and Hezekiah, their decisions and outcomes either revealed a close relationship with God, or a lack of one. The key difference between Ahaz and Hezekiah was when disaster struck, Ahaz put his faith in man and brought judgment and destruction on Judah, but Hezekiah put his trust in God and brought salvation and deliverance to Judah.

***Question: “How can these two men who were father and son be so different?”***

***Answer: “Their response to the crisis was rooted in the type of person they were before it.***

It is impossible to trust God when you do not have a relationship with Him, but Hezekiah did, so lets look at how he would respond to this sudden diagnosis of impending death. The first thing he does is pray and in this prayer he reminds the Lord of three things: his faithful walk, his loyal heart, and his righteous behavior. Being the son of Ahaz, who was one of the wickedest kings, going as far to even offer his own son, as a sacrifice to false gods seems to demonstrate just how far Hezekiah had fallen from the proverbial tree. Our relationship with God provides us with a stable foundation to believe in His promises, especially during difficult seasons. Barry Webb explains, “This serious illness Hezekiah faced was the crisis behind the crisis, which brings each of us face to face with our own mortality, and can put our trust in God on a razor’s edge.”[1] After praying, Hezekiah wept bitterly, submitting his life to God’s will and the Lord answers his prayer immediately, sending Isaiah with a second message that promised two things: God would heal him and add fifteen years to his life and God would deliver him and Jerusalem from Assyria, for God’s honor and David’s sake. John Oswalt believes Hezekiah’s recovery, “Was not merely because God has changed his mind but because of his willingness to keep faith with those to whom he has committed himself in the past. There is no limit to the effect of a faithful life. Although the sins of a person may affect future generations, the results of a person’s faithfulness will reach to a thousand generations.”[2] It is through our prayers, God says He will deliver us and since God never changes, much can be learned about His nature from Scripture.

It is interesting to note here that the Lord would offer a sign, in much the same way He did for king Ahaz, but Ahaz would refuse the Lord’s sign when one was offered because he did not have a relationship with God. However, to ensure Hezekiah of his healing, the Lord would move the shadow back ten degrees on the sundial (2 Kings 20:8). While there is some debate as to whether Hezekiah’s healing predates the attack of Assyria in chapter 37, what is assured is no king of Assyria would ever capture Jerusalem.


Just as Hezekiah and Ahaz both received “fear not” messages, the same promises found in God’s Word applies to the church today. Later in Isaiah, (Isaiah 41:10, 14; 43:1-7) the prophet speaks of a future exile coming, but even in spite of what that would mean, God promised to watch over His children, to rescue them, and to bring them home. As followers of Christ, we need to know how we are going to respond to the “fear not” circumstances and trials of our life. Are we going to put our hope, faith, and trust in man, or will we be like Hezekiah and trust in God’s promises.

***The driving question: “How do we respond when God says ‘Fear not?’”

***Our answer will reveal if the Lord is truly our all-in-all and ever present help in time of need.

John 16:33: “Fear not, for I have overcome the world.”

When Hezekiah was on his deathbed, he had become depressed because it felt as though his very life was being robbed from him. Upon this realization, he began to contemplate never again being able to worship the Lord or enjoy fellowship with others. In vv. 10-13, he says he feels like a tent being taken down or a piece of cloth being cut away. He was broken in both body and spirit and in constant pain from what some scholars believe to be an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Despite his condition, he cried out to the Lord in speech and tears and he made a renewed commitment to the Lord (Matthew 23:12; Isaiah 57:15). This renewed commitment pledged to walk humbly before the Lord, to declare His healing power, to acknowledge the love of the Lord, to praise the Lord, to hope in God’s faithfulness, and to worship faithfully in the house of the Lord. These pledges and traits are what God calls each of His children to do. Our humility compels God to give life to His children, our praise and thanksgiving in the midst of trials and circumstances allows us to grow in our suffering, and our strong witness about the Lord, even in the face of death proclaims God’s faithfulness and salvation. One of the best sayings I have heard is, “Complain and you will remain, but praise and you will be raised.” As Hezekiah came to realize the miraculous work God had done in his life, he knew words could never convey his sincerest gratitude for his deliverance and Geoffrey Grogan beautifully explains, “In God, word and deed always perfectly correspond. The king has learned humility from this experience, for through it he has come to recognize that another controls the course of his life and the day of his death.”[3]
As a result of his healing, Hezekiah is moved to worship the Lord in the temple. If this account truly happened before the attack by the Assyrians, it is easy to see how much bolder he was in his prayer and petition before the Lord with the letter from the enemy demanding the complete surrender of Jerusalem. This story is reminiscent of 2 Kings 13:18 where Elisha instructs king Joash to hit the ground with his arrows, but he stops after only hitting the ground three times. Our finite understanding has a tendency to limit our thoughts and actions and this essentially puts God in a box.

***The question we must each ask ourselves is if we are going to allow our circumstances to define us, as we tell God how big our problems are, or are we going to begin telling our problems just how big our God is and that our ultimate prayer is that His will be done?***


Five years ago, I was involved in a very serious accident that nearly took my life. I was on a long-distance cycle ride and a pickup truck hit me from behind going 65mph. I broke five discs in my neck and four in my lower back. The impact separated my shoulder and rendered me unconscious. That moment in time would shape the rest of my life and it is no coincidence that was the very day I became a pastor. It was almost as if the devil was trying to take me out before I could begin my ministry. It would take over five reconstructive surgeries to put me back together again, but throughout the journey to where I find myself today, I remained faithful to the Lord, I witnessed to countless doctors, nurses, techs, and anyone else who would listen to the miracle God was doing in my life. Sure, I had to deal with constant intense pain and depression tried to overtake me as my plans to enter the military were robbed, but God had something better in store for me because I stayed humble and submitted my life to His complete will. In less than a month, I will graduate with my M.Div. and will be going into the Army as a chaplain, which is beyond what I could ever dream of. Through my suffering, God used me to touch countless lives and through my restoration, He has provided hope for many people walking a similar road to recovery. Last year, I ran over 1,300 miles, which is something the doctors said I would never be able to do again. God’s omnipotence and omniscience allows Him to heal us and know everything we need and are feeling. In some cases, God will choose to miraculously heal us, while in cases like mine; He gave me the strength to endure all the medical procedures. In the end, He receives the glory either way and even my suffering has brought me closer to the Lord and a day never goes by that I do not praise Him for the work He has done and is continuing to do in my life.


The power of prayer has no limits because there is no limit to God’s power. When we are at our weakest, the Lord is at His strongest and He is close to the brokenhearted. He calls each of us to cast our cares on Him for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. In all of our petitions, we must remain humble, faithful, and maintain an attitude of praise. God will always provide exactly what we need when we need it. In the bad, we must learn to praise and in the good, we must not forget to praise. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord and because of his faithful walk, his loyal heart, and his righteous and humble behavior, God was compelled to act. In our deepest depths of despair, Webb explains, “Such lessons are priceless, but often it is only by looking back, as Hezekiah does in the end of this chapter, that we can see how suffering has been the means God has used to teach them to us (Hebrews 12:11; Romans 8:28).


Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah, On Eagles Wings. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “Trusting Man vs. Trusting God: Ahaz and Hezekiah.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Five Video Presentation, 10:44, (accessed August 4, 2017).

[1] Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 154.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 677.

[3] Geoffrey W. Grogan, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 237.



Isaiah’s Everlasting Covenant, Babylon & Jerusalem, & the Leviathan



The everlasting covenant mentioned in Isaiah 24:5 is not a covenant the Lord specifically made with Israel, like the Noachic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, or Davidic covenants. Instead, this everlasting covenant appears to be a covenant that God has made with all the nations, which will hold them accountable for their violence, bloodshed, and iniquities. John Oswalt believes, “While the eternal covenant may have specific reference to the Noachic covenant, with its prohibition of bloodshed, its broader reference is to the implicit covenant between Creator and creature, in which the Creator promises abundant life in return for the creature’s living according to the norms laid down at Creation.”[1] The larger context of Isaiah twenty-four through twenty-seven looks to the final judgment of the wicked and the ultimate salvation of the righteous. Often referred to as the little apocalypse, this passage of Scripture is believed by some scholars to have been written long after the time of Isaiah, but as Gary Yates asserts, “Thematically, it fits very well with what precedes it in chapters thirteen through twenty-three, where we have the judgment of the nations in history and then in twenty-four through twenty-seven, we have the judgment of nations in the last days.”[2] The major takeaway from this portion of Scripture is God’s judgment in history is representative of how and why He will judge the nations in the future. In a similar fashion to how Isaiah speaks to these spiritual and physical laws, Paul in Romans chapters one through three speaks to the fundamental principles of human behavior and as Oswalt emphasizes, “Whether or not persons recognize these principles, living in any other way than in accord with them must ultimately destroy us, as the history of numberless fallen civilizations ought to teach us.”[3] The decline and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Grecian, and Roman Empire were largely attributed to the violations of these laws and the same argument can be made for any nation in the past or future that violates God’s everlasting covenant.

In the immediate context, it is apparent God was going to judge all the earth and all of its inhabitants because they had violated the everlasting covenant. Even nations used by God, like the Assyrians and Egyptians, to pronounce judgment against Israel and Judah would still have to answer for their actions, which had violated the everlasting covenant. Isaiah 26:21 reveals, “For behold, the LORD is coming out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.” Oswalt explains this punishment is the “Result of that intervention and is here expressed especially in terms of those unjustly killed. The earth, which had received their blood, now gives a full accounting, and all the murdered are brought to life. This is in keeping with 26:14. The tables are now fully turned: the killers and the killed are alive forevermore.”[4] This same pronouncement can be found throughout Scripture and the contemporary context for believers today is profound. In Amos 2:1 the king of Moab burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom. Here, Matthew Henry explains, “The evil passions of the heart break out in various forms; but the Lord looks to our motives, as well as our conduct. Those that deal cruelly shall be cruelly dealt with. Other nations were reckoned with for injuries done to men; Judah is reckoned with for dishonor done to God.”[5] This sounds very similar to the language used in the Abrahamic Covenant to bless those who blessed Israel and to curse those who cursed God’s chosen people. Other atrocities such as the Ammonites ripping open the pregnant women in Gilead (Amos 1:13) would be classified as a crime against humanity and would require divine judgment, much like the Babylonians would face because their empire was built upon the blood of their conquered nations. While the United States is not mentioned directly in Scripture, the same standards God has held all previous nations to, by the everlasting covenant, still exists today. God has been in conflict with the powers and forces of evil from the time of creation until the very end of days, but His sovereignty and His righteousness ultimately demand justice and make salvation possible and deliverance available.


When looking at Isaiah chapters twenty-four through twenty-seven, the context is built around comparing and contrasting two different cities. First, there is a condemned and ruined city that is well built and fortified, until the judgment time comes, when the Lord will destroy it. Isaiah 27:10-11 vividly details how “The fortified city is solitary, a habitation deserted and forsaken, like the wilderness; there the calf grazes; there it lies down and strips its branches.” In contrast to this desolate city, there is a secure, blessed, and joyful city portrayed in Isaiah 26:1-2, so the question naturally becomes, “Do these cities represent the actual cites of Babylon and Jerusalem, or are they symbolic?” When looking at the city in Isaiah 27:10-11, Oswalt asserts, “If it is correct to take the city here as the symbol of Judah’s oppressors, then the thought continues the idea of redemption. When Israel’s idols are broken down, then God’s hand will be revealed against her enemies, who are in fact more idolatrous than she. The result will be complete desolation, as that once mighty city becomes a pasture field.”[6] Some scholars argue for a literal representation of this passage, which Frank Gaebelein explains could be interpreted as, “The fortified city of v.10 could certainly be Samaria, and the exile of v.8 would then follow its fall. A reference to Judah is not, of course, impossible, especially if we treat the passage as predictive and the past tenses as prophetic perfects. In this case the city would be Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon.”[7] Because so many of the references to these cities are general and not specific, it appears the immediate context points to the whole people of God, meaning both Israel and Judah, as well as their impending exile. Gaebelein further explains how Isaiah 26:1-2 reveals, “The theme of the two cities links this passage with chapters 24 and 25. In 25:4, God Himself is the refuge of his people, while here (v.1) He gives strength to the city by making salvation its walls and ramparts. The second is not really inferior to the first, for the prophet always thought of such gifts of God as manifestations of what He is in Himself.”[8] In this approach, Gaebelein demonstrates how the visible gifts of God may be distinguishable from Himself, but not those that are invisible and spiritual. Salvation as walls and bulwarks is interesting language, which Oswalt believes expresses, “That access to God’s city is free for those to whom righteousness and faithfulness are paramount.”[9] True deliverance can only come from God, so it seems unlikely that God has set the walls of the city for salvation. Verse two then indicates that only those who keep the faithful covenant may enter in, but as Oswalt explains, “We need think neither that the city is not yet inhabited, nor that the gatekeepers are angels. The point is simply that none can live in this city for whom God’s character is not the passion of their lives, and this entry formula is a way of expressing this truth. The prophet envisions a day when the adulterous spirit of His people will be changed to faithfulness and loyalty.”[10] Isaiah’s imagery of the last days is built around the contrast of these two cities and as John Walton explains, “People in the ancient Near East understood deities having special interest in different towns and cities. Yahweh rules in Zion just as Marduk does in Babylon. Divine ties to specific locations are physically demonstrated by the dedication of temples to them, which serve the gods in a way similar to the function of a palace for a king.”[11] In this writer’s opinion, the immediate context of Isaiah’s judgment of nations points to these cities being Babylon and Jerusalem, during the time of writing. However, in a modern-day context, these texts can easily be applied to nations that choose to honor the everlasting covenant or those that disregard it, and each will have to answer for their choices in the last days. Ultimately, God’s judgment in history is representative of how He will judge all the earth and its inhabitants. Those who trust and put their faith in God will enter through the gates, but those who violate the everlasting covenant will be punished and held accountable for their violence and bloodshed.


The imagery of the Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 is intense as the Lord with His great and strong sword punishes and slays the twisting serpent or dragon in the sea. When looking at this passage through the lens of Psalm 74:12-17, the Lord similarly defeats the sea, controls the water of chaos, and crushes the head of Leviathan at the time of creation. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al. explain, “This section uses the creation myth of the invaders to declare the God of Israel as the one and only legitimate king over the gods and the people. This is clearly theological chutzpah that claims in the midst of a ruined temple that it is the Lord of Israel who stands in the place of Marduk, thus announcing God’s kingship and defeat of all the other gods.”[12] Water is the strongest and most destructive force on the earth and it is also vital for survival, so any god that claimed could control water would surely be worshipped. There is no denying the mythological similarities in this text to the discovery of Ugaritic texts and Hittite literature, so the proper conclusion is Isaiah used similar imagery to proclaim God’s victory over sin and death. Isaiah’s choice of words is also interesting as he uses: ‏לִוְיָתָן or‎ liwyātān ‏to mean Leviathan, נָחָשׁ or nāḥāš‏ to mean serpent, and תַּנִּין‎ or tannîn to mean dragon monster. As Oswalt explains, “Initially, it was believed that they referred to Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. However, the way in which Leviathan is identified in the Ugaritic texts now makes it appear that this threefold form was simply a poetic convention in the Canaanite area. Note the similarities: ‘If you smite Lotan the serpent slant/ Destroy the serpent tortuous/Shalyat of the seven heads…’”[13]

Another point of interest is how Psalm 74 and Exodus 15 display God using the Red Sea to deliver the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. However, in Isaiah, this passage’s larger context represents the Lord’s defeat over the enemy nations, while the original myth had this event and the defeat happening at the time of creation. This further demonstrates how God is in a continuous conflict with the powers and forces of evil from the time of creation until the very end, but also how He brought chaos and evil under His control at creation. The important distinction is that theology and mythology were not borrowed by Isaiah, but the use of Canaanite mythic imagery was, in order for the Hebrews to establish Yahweh as being superior to: Baal, Marduk, Lotan, Tiamat, Leviathan, or any other false gods. John Day expresses the Leviathan’s defeat shows, “Yahweh’s victory over the power of Chaos at Creation, Yahweh’s victory over the power of Egypt at the Exodus and over the power of Babylon at the ‘exodus’ from the Exile, and ultimately, as Isaiah 27:1 illustrates, to portray Yahweh’s victory over the power of Satan at the eschaton on the analogy that ‘as the beginning, so also the end.’”[14] The use of old creation’s imagery here to describe the new creation is profound. Then, immediately following this verse is the picture and final message of hope to Israel as the fruitful vineyard, which is a complete reversal of the judgment pronounced by Isaiah in chapter five. Oswalt further shows how God “Is the sole Sovereign of the universe, and while evil and destruction now seem to threaten the principles of justice upon which His order is founded, they will not prevail. God will triumph and those who have kept faith with Him will triumph with Him. But the true monster that must be destroyed is the monster of moral evil and His people may await that day with joy.”[15] The use of Canaanite imagery is present throughout Scripture, especially as it pertains to the future defeat of Satan. In Revelation 12:3, John uses δράκων or drakōn to identify the monster that is no doubt the devil, but the imagery he uses is closely connected to Isaiah’s description. Robert Mounce states, “Ancient mythology is replete with references to dragons. In Canaanitish lore the great monster of the deep was known as Leviathan. Closely associated was Rahab, the female monster of chaos. More often than not, allusions to these dragons in the OT refer metaphorically to Israel’s enemies. In Ps 74:14 Leviathan is Egypt. In Isaiah 27:1 he is Assyria and Babylon.”[16] Similar imagery can also be found in Daniel 7:7 and 8:10 to illustrate Satan’s plan. Mounce says,

The dragon stands in readiness before the woman with child so that when the child is born he can devour it. It began with the determination of King Herod to murder the Christ-child (Matthew 2), continued throughout the dangers and temptations of His earthly life, and culminated in the crucifixion. As Nebuchadnezzar devoured Israel, ‘he has swallowed us and filled his stomach with our delicacies,’ (Jeremiah 51:34), so Satan has determined to devour the child. He has taken his position and now awaits his victim.[17]

Isaiah’s use of the Leviathan imagery to depict the Lord’s defeat over Israel’s enemies is impressive, but what is even more remarkable is how it also refers to the eschatological defeat of the Lord’s enemies.


Day, John N. “God and Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1.” Bibliotheca Sacra 155, no. 620 (October 1998): 423-436. (accessed July 23, 2017).

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.

Gaebelein, Frank E., ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary: Isaiah (New York, NY: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.

Mounce, Robert H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Oswalt, John N. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Sandy, D. Brent. Plowshares & Pruning Hook: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. USA: Zondervan, 2009.

Webb, Barry G. The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Isaiah, On Eagles Wings. Edited by J. A. Motyer. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “Highlights from the Little Apocalypse.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 18:18, (accessed July 25, 2017).

[1] John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 446.

[2] Gary Yates, “Highlights from the Little Apocalypse,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 18:18, (accessed July 25, 2017).

[3] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 446.

[4] Ibid., 489.

[5] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary: Isaiah (New York, NY: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), Chapter 2.

[6] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 499.

[7] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 171.

[8] Ibid., 163.

[9] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 471.

[10] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 471.

[11] John H. Walton, ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel (USA: Zondervan, 2009), 100.

[12] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 599.

[13] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 491.

[14] John N. Day, “God and Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155, no. 620 (October 1998): 436. (accessed July 23, 2017).

[15] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 491.

[16] Robert H. Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 232.

[17] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 233.

Crusades: Man’s War or Holy War?

Templar Cross

By Noah Webster’s original definition, Crusades were, “Military expeditions undertaken by Christians, for the recovery of the Holy Land, the scene of our Savior’s life and suffering, from the power of infidels or Mohammedans. Several of these expeditions were carried on from Europe, under the banner of the cross, from which the name originated.” Today’s definition is a far cry from its original classifying them as merely, “Christian military expeditions to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims.” What happened to “the scene of our Savior’s life and suffering?” Over time, historical revisionism has continued to chisel away the centrality of Christ in the crusades. While much is still being discovered, there remains the debate over whether these military expeditions were early religious perceptions of a jihad: “holy war” making them in essence a Christian jihad while scholars like John O’Neil believe, “Before the advent of Islam, Christians had no concept of ‘Holy War’ at all, and that it was from the Muslims themselves that Europeans took this idea.” While it is important to stress the word “Crusade” was not in existence until more than 100 years after the First Crusade, the practice of crusading seems to have functioned differently and meant vastly different things depending on the time, place, and participants who were involved.

As Jonathan Riley-Smith illustrates:

The consensus among Christians on the use of violence has changed radically since the crusades were fought. The just war theory prevailing for most of the last two centuries—that violence is an evil, which can in certain situations be condoned as the lesser of evils—is relatively young.” [Now,] the main areas of debate are whether violence could be employed on behalf of Christ’s intentions for mankind and whether they could even be directly authorized by Him.

The true version of history is so eagerly sought after because he who controls the past controls the future and as Simon Sebag Montefiore demonstrates, “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions, and she is the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth.” The reasons and motives behind the Crusades have seen a renewed interest following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and as Brian Hale points out, “The Crusades remain today one of the most misunderstood events in western history.”


This paper will show if Pope Urban II had the right to commission the crusades, if violence could be employed on behalf of Christ’s intentions for mankind, and whether this act could lead to the forgiveness and remission of sins. Through a chronological approach, beginning with the Word of God, as a foundation and as an authority, this paper will demonstrate God’s sovereignty since the beginning of time and will demonstrate at what point in history man may have overstepped their authority. Finally, this paper will analyze the theory of the First Crusade being more of a solution to a problem and a means to an end by examining evidence suggesting the Crusades were either a political or religious mission.


Riley-Smith recognizes the appearance of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I’s embassy at the church council at Piacenza in March of 1095 as the origin and notion of where crusading began. This council was presided over by Pope Urban II and in Alexius I’s call for help against the invading Turks who had advanced within striking distance of Constantinople, “[It] set off the chain of events that led to the First Crusade.” Rodney Stark details Alexius I’s request vividly:

Detailing the gruesome tortures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and vile desecrations of churches, altars, and baptismal font. [In his letter, he said,] “Should Constantinople fall to the Turks, not only would thousands more Christians be murdered, tortured, and raped, but the most holy relics of the Savior will be lost, [so] therefore in the name of God… we implore you to bring this city all the faithful soldiers of Christ… In your coming you will find your reward in heaven, and if you do not come, God will condemn you.”

The continued advance of the Turks and the disintegrating eastern frontier of Christendom was not something new and had even led Pope Gregory VII in 1074 to contemplate sending a force of his own to free his Christian brothers in the east. Urban served under Gregory, so it is no surprise how his background had perpetually been leading to this cataclysm he was now about to undertake. Riley-Smith points out, “Urban called for a war of liberation, to be waged by volunteers who had vowed to fight as an act of penance. He stressed that he was speaking on God’s behalf [and he] wrote of the crusaders being inspired agents of God… engaged in God’s service out of love for Him… as knights of Christ.” To rally his cause, Urban preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont where he proposed that the Western European nobleman and their armies join forces with the Eastern Christian Byzantine Emperor’s army to mount an offensive against the Muslim Turks.

According to Richard McBrien, “[Urban was] among the less celebrated and, in some cases, [the] most notorious [Pope, by] launching the First Crusade in an ill-conceived and utterly counterproductive attempt to recapture the holy places in Palestine from the Muslims.” Despite his current reputation and potential motives, Urban was positioned in a place and time of great power and he possessed an extremely expressive and commanding speaking voice, which he put to great use in his speech. Stark depicts this scene vividly as:

The pope began by graphically detailing the torture, rape, and murder of Christian pilgrims and the defilement of churches and holy places committed by the Turks saying, “They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either pour on the altars or pour into vases of the baptismal font… What shall I say about the abominable rape of women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”

The idea that violence in pursuit of religious aims was not unlawful and may in fact be required did not start with the Crusades, but the Crusades represented a time where killing in the name of God became part of the canon for believers as they assumed they were involved in a war of liberation in the name of God. This rhetoric about religious aims and fighting became only increasingly commingled and the Plenary Indulgence was the result, which stated the remission of all punishment for the sins committed up to the date it was issued. Riley-Smith demonstrates this authority came from, “Citing the powers of binding and loosing granted by Christ to the Apostles [and this] value of repayment [would reduce] the time repentant sinners would have had to spend in Purgatory.” However, as Everett Ferguson illustrates, Urban II carried this pledge one step further by, “Offering to crusaders the same remission of the church’s penalties for sin that were customarily granted to pilgrims to Jerusalem, but in the subsequent promotion of the crusade, preachers extended the promise to a remission of all penalties for sin that God would inflict both in this life and in the next.”


This concept of doing some good work to cancel out previous sin was completely transformed into retaking the Holy Land by force to satisfy the requirements for the temporal punishment of sins, as Riley-Smith points out, “The crusade was going to be presented as an exercise that went far beyond service to God in arms [And] this idea of penitential warfare was revolutionary, because it put the act of fighting on the same meritorious plane as prayer, works of mercy, and fasting.” Ferguson further clarifies, “An indulgence was the remission of the temporal punishments ‘whether inflicted on earth or in purgatory’ for sin. The guilt of sin ‘eternal punishment’ was forgiven by absolution in response to the contrition and confession by the sinner, but satisfaction ‘temporal punishment’ still had to be made for sins.”

While these conditions may have led to being involved in the Crusades, Riley-Smith reminds the reader the Crusades ultimately were a penitential war highlighting the belief that, “When humans sin, they owe debts to God which must be repaid through suffering in this world or by punishment in the next.” As William Webster illustrates, “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification, is in fact a process which is dependent upon infused grace which can be lost by committing serious sin. Should that happen, forgiveness must be sought and the state of justification regained. Forgiveness for sin is mediated through the Church and the sacrament of Confession and Penance.” Therefore, in order to make atonement for sins, one would take on a form of penance to satisfy the debt of sin and to receive God’s mercy of forgiveness. For the modern church, these principle seems foreign because the sacrifice Jesus made wiped away all past, present, and future sin because as scripture states, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

This was a point in time where a major shift occurred in the way the church viewed sin and forgiveness as Webster points out:

With the Church’s teaching that only the sins committed up to the time of baptism were forgiven in coming to Christ, there remains the problem of how sins were to be forgiven after baptism. The Church taught that confession of sin and repentance was necessary to receive forgiveness. But over time what we see is that the biblical idea of repentance is slowly displaced by the concept of penance. This began with the teaching that true repentance will manifest itself in fruit or outward works, and those works became identified as works of satisfaction such as fasting, weeping and praying.

As Glenn Sanders points out, “It was the belief that crusades were collective acts of penance, repayments through self-punishment of the debts owed to God for sin, which distinguished them from other Holy Wars” and Pope Urban II took penance one enormous leap forward and set the precedent for future crusades playing on the vulnerability of commoners wanting to do God’s work, be restored in fellowship with God, and as Colin Morris has argued, the Pope used these motivators to his advantage exposing how, “The popes, were aware of the persuasive power of visual imagery, particularly on the illiterate. Therefore, in addition to the preaching of the Crusades in sermons, songs, and liturgy, papal policy encouraged the Crusades through placards carried to advertise a particular Crusade, and through the art and architecture of churches and halls.” Urban even used Matthew 16:24 as a platform to institute the work of the cross and he carried them around distinctively as though he was enacting what Jesus commanded, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” However, as R. T. France states, “Discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom. It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interests and comfort, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage.” Both the cross and the losing of one’s life are meant literally, yet Urban was stretching his interpretation beyond its intended use. Jesus fully expected his loyal followers to die for the cause, but Urban blurs the lines between dying for Jesus and giving up your life for Him. Ferguson points out how quickly, “War cries received formal authorization – Deus le volt ‘God wills it’ [And] how the crusaders were urged to sew a cloth cross on the back of their outer garment; on their return, to place it on the front. Romans said it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country [And now] the pope said that one must be ready to die for the earthly Jerusalem.”


The true motives behind the crusades remains a highly debated topic, while the theological motivation for the crusades was quite flawed from a biblical perspective. In recent years, especially with tensions in the Middle East, some scholars contend the Crusaders did not march out of a sense of idealism, but instead in the pursuit of honor, land, or wealth. Some go as far to say the Crusades were a crime against Islam in their attempt to Christianize the Muslim masses. Karen Armstrong even suggested, “Crusading answered a deep need in the Christians of Europe. Yet today most of us would unhesitantly condemn the Crusaders as unchristian. After all, Jesus told His followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. He was a pacifist and had more in common with Gandhi, perhaps, than with Pope Urban.”

While the Turks were advancing and Christian brothers were certainly in peril, a similar problem was happening closer to home as a nation bred for war no longer had any function, which was leading to uncontrolled violence. Riley-Smith highlights how, “When Urban called for liberation, he was using a concept colored by its employment in the last half-century by reformers with an exaggerated notion of liberty… [And how] for over forty years the popes had supported the use of force against those who resisted the new ideas.” Through this precedent, Urban sought to use the same violence that had conquered the known world to be put to use in God-given purposes. The church recognized this evil and aggressiveness and sought to redirect it for the service of the church by convincing the population it was their God-given purpose to volunteer for the Crusades. Riley-Smith portrays this scene as; “It is as though society was yearning for a means of expressing its beliefs the only way it knew.” Essentially, the leaders of the church had turned the Holy Land into God’s version of the coliseum by making crusading vocational, as they became warriors for Christ and the remission of sins gave the crusades a stained disenfranchised religious character.

Urban claimed to have two distinct goals; the first was freeing the church in Jerusalem from Muslim rule and the second was the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre. Riley-Smith adds a potential tertiary motivation was, “The liberation of specific groups of the faithful with the needs and renewal of the Church at large.” More than anything, Urban was merging the common practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem with the new concept of crusading. Riley-Smith shows how:

It would never have been easy to justify the inflicting of pain and loss of life, with the consequential distortion of the perpetrator’s internal dispositions, as a penance simply because the penitent was exposing [his or her] self to danger, however unpleasant the experience might have been. It was to be Pope Urban’s achievement that he gave the idea a context in which it could be presented more convincingly, because he associated it with the most charismatic of all traditional penances, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Creating crusaders for the act of penance will forever be the legacy of Urban for it was at the council of Clermont where he said, “Whoever joined the army for devotion alone,” meaning not for monetary gain or honor, could take this voluntary quest for complete penance of sins. The crusaders enacted a vow committing them to liberate Jerusalem by force and in death if necessary. As Montefiore points out, “Urban saw his life’s mission as the restoration of the power and reputation of the Catholic Church, [so] he devised a new theory of holy war to reinvigorate Christendom and the papacy, justifying the cleansing liquidation of the infidel in return for the remission of sin… that created a Christian version of Muslim jihad.” Urban’s role in the Crusades seems limited to the conception and idea rather than the logistics and tactics. His greatest strength was his endeavor to play on the emotions of his listeners. While there are many questions raised to his exact speeches, E. R. Appleton paints the most vivid imagery portraying Urban saying, “Go forth and fight boldly for the cause of God. Christ Himself will be your leader. If you have rich possessions here, you are promised better ones in the Holy Land. Those who die will enter the mansions of Heaven: those who live shall behold the sepulcher of their Lord. You are soldiers of the cross. Wear on breasts the blood-red sign of Him who died.”


As Thomas Asbridge points out, “In Urban’s day, faith dominated and dictated everyday life to an extent that can seem almost inconceivable to a modern observer attuned to the attitudes and preconceptions of an increasingly secularized contemporary society.” However, the problem was sin and temptation was still everywhere despite this immense amount of faith and Asbridge suggests medieval mankind did not have a way to live a true Christian lifestyle. An important question of the day that must be answered was what did the New Testament say about the use of force. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke for God and when Moses descended from Mount Sinai one of God’s ten commandments was “Thou shall not kill.” Riley-Smith highlights how, “What struck fourth-century Christian theologians was how that commandment was immediately modified in the narrative on and around Sinai… [As God] demanded the death penalty… for those who barred the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land.” Another contradiction to this new commandment was what happened when the Israelites had made a golden calf and were worshipping it while Moses was on top of the Mount Sinai and Riley-Smith proposes, “Moses was described authorizing their slaughter.”

The foundation of the New Testament is centered on Jesus, the Great Commission, and the Great Commandment to love God and thy neighbor as yourself. While Riley-Smith agrees that Jesus demanded His followers to love friends as well as enemies, he also illustrates how Jesus’ disciples carried swords and on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter cut the ear off of the High Priest’s servant. Although Peter was rebuked for his actions by Christ, we also see other references by Paul who said, “The ruler in authority does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” This theology and mindset goes back to the time when the Israelites wanted a king because Samuel’s sons were unrighteous, but as history proves, the king who thinks he is God quickly becomes the devil. God warned the people of the tyranny and oppression that would result, but the people still wanted a king like the other nations had. God also knew the potential cruelty of this position and what kind of monster it could become, since this position of power could be used to abuse the people when they looked to the king as their Savior instead of God because eventually, the king will only determine what he thinks is right and good by what benefits the king the most.


Christopher Tyerman explains how, “The church’s teaching on war early reflected this process of interpretation and exegesis. Negatively, the so-called charity texts of the New Testament that preached pacifism and forgiveness, not retaliation, were firmly defined as applying to the beliefs and behavior of the private person.” Tyerman also offers examples of John the Baptist advising the soldiers to remain in the army and draw their wages; and as citizens, Jesus told the people to give unto Caesar what was his, which clearly distinguished the separation between spiritual and political obligations. It is through this interpretation that Tyerman argues, “There was no intrinsic contradiction in a doctrine of personal, individual forgiveness condoning certain forms of necessary public violence to ensure the security in which Christians may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” Christian attitudes towards violence varied in the eleventh century, but as Tyerman illustrates, “The main thrust of papal reform was towards restoring to the church the pristine autonomy and spirituality of the Acts of the Apostles… [This marked] a radical alteration in the relationship of church and state, which had assumed cooperation rather than separation.” Even if moral reform was the goal of the clergy, it raised a red flag and presented theoretical repercussions, as anyone who fought for the church now became a matter of serious concern.

Two thousand years later, the church believed it was the pope’s duty to speak for God as Riley-Smith points out: “The war was authorized by the pope as vicar of Christ.” Riley-Smith traces the early Christian contradiction towards violence through Augustine of Hippo, arguably one the greatest early theologians, whose ideas were rooted in the law of the Roman Republic. He believed, “That violence, whether expressed in warfare, armed rebellion or an internal state sanction, required criteria to be considered legitimate.” Violence itself was conceived as being ethically neutral, so intention was what really mattered to form a legally sound defense. Using this argumentative platform, Crusaders were thought to have right or just intentions by liberating the Holy Land and protecting fellow Christians as their cause. This represented a new chapter, as one could kill for the church in order to save one’s soul or forgive their sins and this created a completely new category of warfare.

Augustine of Hippo also argued, “Force could not be employed lightly or for aggrandizement, but only for a legally sound reasons, which had to be a reactive one.” The debate was centered over whether God could personally order violence. Riley-Smith demonstrates how, “On divine authority, Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice Isaac and Moses had waged war, [but how] God, in mandating the use of force, acted not out of cruelty, but in righteous retribution.” This ideology led the Popes to turn to biblical scholars and theologians to justify the use of force. As a result, we are given two premises that stipulated the use of violence: “The first was an insistence on the ultimate authority of God… [And] the second was the conviction that violence was ethically neutral.” Riley-Smith illustrates how these principles led Augustine to develop the theory of just war, which haunted Christianity and led to modern-war theory, which he defines as, “Violence is indeed evil, but [how] disorder can be a greater one [And] the use of force may therefore become a necessity as the lesser of evils.” This theory was a catalyst for the justification for violence and in many ways simply removed God’s will from the equation and the end result was holy wars. Out of Augustine’s work, Pope Gregory VII based his beliefs around Jeremiah 48:10, “Cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed.” Tyerman elaborates further how Gregory, “Identified two forms of occupation for arms-bearers, one secular, selfish, and sinful; the other penitential, justified by legitimate rights, loyalty to a lord, protection of the vulnerable or defense of the church.”

At any rate, this writer contends with Riley-Smith’s conclusion of, “Historians used to believe that the Church had been pacifist in the early Christian centuries, but had then become contaminated by the values of its host societies in a process which culminated during the period when crusading was at its height, but the idea of charting attitudes in such a linear way is unrealistic.” Ultimately, one’s actions depended on the context and situation as Riley-Smith clarifies how the crucial element in the church’s correlation with violence was one by choice. Augustine of Hippo strengthened this argument by stating, “Violence was validated to a greater or lesser degree by the state of mind of those responsible,” which gave the church authority to enact warfare on multiple fronts based on Old and New Testament teachings, Roman Law, and the ideologies of the major theologians of the day.


Whatever the cause or reason, Tyerman portrays how Urban’s appeal astonished all and shocked some with an outcome provided by its own justification and showed how:

The story has resonated down the centuries of how tens of thousands willingly uprooted themselves for the sake of liberating Jerusalem, a place of unimaginable physical remoteness yet ubiquitous immediate appeal; of how, suffering horrific losses and agonizing obstacles, they were painfully forged into an army that appeared to campaign as much in a war of the spirit as of the flesh; of how they surmounted seemingly fatal odds, of climate, terrain, local hostility, and superior enemy numbers in repeated desperate battles and skirmishes; [And] of how the story of the march to Jerusalem obscured much that failed to fit an acceptable and accepted literary and theological pattern, or challenged the embroidered reminiscences of the returned warriors of Christ.

Pope Urban II believed he had the right to commission the crusades and he turned this opportunity to his own purposes by commissioning violence on behalf of Christ’s intentions as well as claiming this act would lead to the forgiveness and remission of sins. As scripture and scholarly sources have indicated, there is tremendous danger in the sphere of church and state, especially when God is removed. “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” God has appointed leaders and rulers throughout history and despite man’s fallen state and numerous failed attempts, God remains on the throne as He can use anyone and anything to accomplish His will, as He is sovereign in all things. As Douglas Moo illuminates, “By punishing those who do wrong and rewarding those who do good, secular rulers are carrying out God’s purposes in the world. Christians, therefore, are to submit to the secular rulers” even in their mistakes, so while the crusades were more of a solution to a problem and a means to an end because of the state of affairs in the European region, it did not matter if the Crusades were a political or religious mission because the Pope, as the ruler and representative of God, called and the people answered in mass? Urban died just two weeks following the Crusaders recapture of Jerusalem, yet the news of their success did not reach the pope before his passing. One can only wonder what sort of reception awaited him at the heavenly gates and who among the crusaders were present is truly a mystery left only to God. This stained chapter of Christianity is one that leads to deep remorse and in some cases shear embarrassment as is evidenced by the Pope’s and many church leader’s apology to the Muslims throughout the years. Everett Ferguson sums it up best by demonstrating how: “The crusades permanently poisoned Christian-Muslim relations and ended the spirit of tolerance for Christians living under Muslim rule.”


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