Assyria v Judah: God’s Sovereignty and 2 Kings 19:25

A passage that comes to the forefront in the church’s debate over God’s sovereignty is 2 Kings 19:25. Calvinists use it to point to God’s meticulous sovereignty. Non-Calvinists, such as myself, disagree with that conclusion.

The passage is set during the time of Hezekiah when the nation of Assyria rose to dominance. They brutally conquered most of the Ancient Near East. And near the end of their conquest, the Assyrian king Sennacherib began to boast.

With my many chariots I have gone up

to the height of the mountains.

To the remote areas of Lebanon,

I have felled the tallest of its cedars,

the choicest of its cypresses.

I have entered the place of overnight lodging.

Even to the edge of forest of its fertile land.

I dug wells and I drank foreign water,

and I dried up with the sole of my steps

all the canals of Egypt.

2 Kings 19:23–24 (LEB)

But Yahweh replied to him:

Have you not heard?

Long ago I did it;

From ancient times I planned it.

Now I have brought it to pass,

That you should turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps.

2 Kings 19:25 (NAS)

On the Calvinistic side, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) writes concerning this passage:

In 19:25–26, Isaiah indicates the basis for this astonishment at Sennacherib’s folly: his military accomplishments have not come about through his own strength or cunning but were sovereignly ordained by God long ago. Assyria is simply a tool in the hand of God to bring about his purposes of judgment, and the empire can be overturned at any time. Second Kings 19:25–26 accords with the rest of the Bible in affirming that God is sovereign over all events and is capable of using even evil to bring about his larger purposes (see Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23).[1]

On the surface, I agree with the words they use here. I could say the same thing. But I know that what they mean by sovereignty is much different than what I mean. They mean that God is the primary cause of all things, including sin.[2] God meticulous works out his sovereignty in that not a single detail occurs outside of his direct cause.[3] And this plan only has one path forward without deviances.[4] With this definition, I disagree with the lesson TGC derives from 2 Kings 19. I want to show that Calvinistic sovereignty cannot be derived from 2 Kings 19:25. And further, the Biblical context clearly presents libertarian free will.

When Did God Make His Plan?

The first issue to work through is the timing. The first phrase which shows time is “long ago.” It comes from a single word רָחוֹק which generally means spatial distance. So, you can translate this line: “from a distance I made it.” In the next line, the parallel phrase “from ancient times” uses the word יוֹם, that is, day. Thus, it shows that some time element to be involved. The question is when was this plan made?

For the Calvinist, the answer must be before the creation, in the eternal mind of God. But do these words mean their interpretation? The short answer is no. First, it says “from ancient days” indicating that God made the decision after time began. If it said, “before ancient days,” the Calvinist may have a point. But it does not. And so, on the surface, his view does not fit this passage.

Lest we make too much of the parsing of prepositional phrase, let us look at how the Hebrew Bible uses the phrase in other contexts. What we find is that in every case, this phrase refers to a time long before the speaker but still within humanity’s period[5]. For example, Psalm 44 says,

We have heard with our ears, O God,

our ancestors have told us,

what deeds you performed in their days,

in the days of old:

you with your own hand drove out the nations,

but them you planted;

you afflicted the peoples,

but them you set free.

Psalm 44:1-2 (NRSV)

Thus, between the parsing of the phrase and its use in Scripture, it seems that at some point within human history God made the decision to raise up Assyria.

In fairness, the Calvinist has one approximate phrase which they can use as a loophole out of the rule:

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

Too little to be among the clans of Judah,

From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.

His goings forth are from long ago,

From the days of eternity.

Micah 5:2 (NAS)

They could conclude that this passage talks about eternity past. And thus, over in 2 Kings 19:25 it is possible to refer to eternity past there as well. I make two counters. First, it is not the exact phrase in 2 Kings 19:25. So, it would be stretching the syntactical context a bit. Second, the context of Micah 5:2 is pointing to the roots of the Davidic line in Bethlehem. Micah was indicating to the ancientness of the Davidic line, not to the preincarnate existence of Christ.[6]

Therefore, I conclude that the plan which God formed and made in 2 Kings 19:25 originated at a point after creation. It is very possible that God made this plan when he gave the Law. In the Law, he predicted the falling away of Israel and its punishment (Dt 30:15-18). It is possible, by speculation only, that this is the time when he set plans in motion for the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians.

How Fixed Was God’s Plan?

The other part of Calvinistic sovereignty is that every detail of the plan of God is immovably fixed. Let us look at the verses again.

You should turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps.

‘Therefore their inhabitants were short of strength,

They were dismayed and put to shame;

They were as the vegetation of the field and as the green herb,

As grass on the housetops is scorched before it is grown up.

2 Kings 19:25–26 (NAS)

Now, the most that you can deduct from this passage is that God planned for Assyria to conquer many people. It does not show, however, that his plan was sovereignly meticulous as the Calvinists define it. There are just not any details in this text that indicate meticulous Calvinistic sovereignty. It just states some generalities. Of course, the response is that it “accords with the rest of the Bible.” And so, the Calvinists can read their definition of sovereignty into the text.

While Calvinists can make this passage fit their theology, it cannot be said to prove their position. In fact, standing on its own, it cannot prove libertarian free will either. Thus, if we kept ourselves strictly in this passage, we would have a moot point that does not support either side.

The Declaration of Judgment

But what about other passages? No, I am not talking about a list of proof texts that we dump on 2 Kings 19:25. But other passages that have direct divine discourse on this historical event. And we have a lot of them. The first passage I will bring up is Isaiah 22. God proclaims judgement against Jerusalem (Is 22:1-8). And Isaiah records the reaction Judah had to the proclamation of judgment:

In that day [the time of judgment] 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 houses to fortify the 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 22:8–11 (NAS)

This passage refers to Hezekiah’s attempt to patch up the wall and secure the city before the Assyrian siege (2 Kgs 20:20, cf. Is 7:1ff).[7] They were preparing for the siege, but not in the right way. They thought in their pride that they would stave off the Assyrian army in their own strength.

God seeing their pride pleaded with them to repent (Is 22:12). But instead of responding positively to the pleading, they decided to party it up, saying “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die” (Is 22:13). What was God’s response?

But the Lord of hosts revealed Himself to me,

“Surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven you

Until you die,” says the Lord God of hosts.

Isaiah 22:14 (NAS)

God proclaimed destruction against Judah through Isaiah. And Isaiah was not alone in this prophecy. Micah his contemporary also railed against the injustice and the godlessness of the Jerusalem monarchy during the time of the Assyrian siege (Mic 1-3).[8] And he concluded his condemnation with these words:

Therefore, on account of you

Zion will be plowed as a field,

Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins,

And the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.

Micah 3:12 (NAS)

From these two passages, we can see that God’s decree, his sovereign choice, was to not forgive the sins of Jerusalem. Instead, it was to bring his plan with the Assyrians to pass and destroy his people. And as he planned long ago, Jerusalem would become a heap of ruins.

The Relenting from Judgment

But we know that is not what happened. Judah got another hundred years or so. What happened to God’s decree? Quite simple: libertarian free will. God changed his plans for the destruction of Jerusalem because of two factors: Assyria’s pride and Judah’s humility.

Judah’s Humility

Concerning Judah’s humility, Jeremiah records a discussion about that very prophecy from Micah:

Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah; and he spoke to all the people of Judah, saying, ‘Thus the Lord of hosts has said,

“Zion will be plowed as a field,

And Jerusalem will become ruins,

And the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest.”’

Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear the Lord and entreat the favor of the Lord, and the Lord changed His mind about the misfortune which He had pronounced against them?

Jeremiah 26:18–19 (NAS)

Isaiah records that prayer of Hezekiah in chapter 37:14-20.

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. Incline Your ear, O LORD, and hear; open Your eyes, O LORD, and see; and listen to all the words of Sennacherib, who sent them to reproach the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have devastated all the countries and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. 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 37:14-20 (NAS)

In response to this prayer, God said, “Because you have prayed to Me about Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken against him” (Is 37:21–22, NAS). The operative word here is because. Hezekiah’s prayer moved God to relent concerning the calamity. Remember, the decree was clear: total annihilation. But now, in response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God said, “Out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Is 37:32, NAS).

Assyria’s Pride

The other free will response that God based changing his decree was Assyria’s pride. God said to Sennacherib:

Because of your raging against Me

And because your arrogance has come up to My ears,

Therefore I will put My hook in your nose

And My bridle in your lips,

And I will turn you back by the way which you came.

Isaiah 37:29 (NAS)

In another place, God said of Sennacherib:

“I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.”

Isaiah 10:12 (NAS)

The conclusion from these passages is rather simple. God decreed destruction for Israel’s pride. He planned long before Assyria’s military conquest to use them to destroy Israel. But, when Judah repented and turned back to Yahweh, he forgave them and spared them. And when Assyria was proud and taunted God, he crushed them. God responded to the libertarian free will response of humanity.

Does this mean that God himself changes? Is there no moral backbone to God? Does he just forgive sin because he felt bad about what he said? No. This change in God’s actions is not a change in his character. In fact, it is his very character which drives him to alter his decree. As Solomon, Peter, and James attest: “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5, NAS). It is his very nature to come to the humble. This change is what we should expect to see.

Objections

There are of course several objections to my conclusions. Calvinists have wrestled with the apparent truth that God changes his mind. But in my opinion, their answers fall short of the exegesis.

Objection 1: These conclusions mean you are an open theist. While it is true that someone can use the exegesis to support open theism, I do not believe that it requires an open theistic conclusion.

Open theism claims that while God can know the future, he suspends his ability to know in order that free will can be truly free. They do this to defend the character of God against the charge that he causes moral evil. I simply do not hold to this position. I take the eternal-now view that God is outside time and therefore sees all time in his present.  Much more could be said here, but I demure.

This objection is not even to the point of the argument. It merely labels me as “bad” and thus, I am not to be trusted in my exegesis. It fails to address the exegesis.

Objection 2: God determines all things including prayer as a means to affect his will. As Paul Rezkalla puts it,

To say we do not need to pray because God has determined all outcomes is as ridiculous as saying we don’t need to take medicine, work for a living, or look for a spouse because God has determined all outcomes. It is true God has determined all outcomes, but God has also determined the means by which those outcomes will take place.[9]

This only works up to a certain point. But let us work through the exegetical data.

  • First, God formed a plan in time to destroy Judah via Assyria.
  • Second, God proclaimed to Israel through two prophets that he was going to destroy them through Assyria.
  • But third, because Hezekiah prayed and Sennacherib was proud, God apparently changed his plan and destroyed Assyria instead of Judah.

I can see that Rezkallas’s point would work for the final observation. But let us look at the second. God decreed through two inspired prophets that Assyria would destroy Judah. In response, Hezekiah humbled himself and repented. Then, God apparently changed his plan.

But, according to Rezkallas’s standpoint, from the beginning of time, God had determined that he was not going to destroy Judah at this moment. In fact, God had no intention to destroy Judah despite telling Judah that he had every intention to destroy them. If Rezkalla’s viewpoint is correct, I can only conclude that God lied through the mouth of his prophets to bring about his will.

And this raises a serious ethical question: can God lie through the mouth of his prophets to accomplish his greater good? No. We know that God cannot lie (Nm 23:19). Therefore, it seems that this interpretation cannot fit this passage.

Objection 3: God used the desires of the men compatibilisticly to determine the outcome of the situation. In other words, God arranged the circumstances so that Sennacherib would cave to his fallen desires and become proud. Similarly, Hezekiah would submit to his spiritual desires and humble himself to pray.

But this does not get away from the issue with the previous objection. In this view, God still determined to lie through his own prophets to arrange the circumstances so that Hezekiah would desire to humble himself and pray. But this still impugns the character of God. It does not work with the text either.

Objection 4: God spoke to them in anthropomorphic terms because they could not understand what was truly going on in the mind of God. As Blair Smith states,

When the Bible attributes change to God, it’s an “anthropopathic” way of speaking. Anthropopathisms attribute human emotions (such as grief or regret) to God. They don’t directly describe his character or attributes; rather, they indicate a change in humanity’s relationship to him.[10]

The problem with this view is that we clearly see a change from destruction to salvation. God declared destruction so plainly that it scared Hezekiah to death. If this was a simple metaphor, an anthropomorphism, then it was a very cruel way to express things.

Besides, God can express his truth very plainly when it comes to salvation from one’s enemies. Why could he not have sent a message through Isaiah to Hezekiah like the one he spoke later?

The Lord has proclaimed

to the end of the earth:

Say to daughter Zion,

“See, your salvation comes;

his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.”

Isaiah 62:11 (NRSV)

This could have been the message he sent to Hezekiah. He could have said to him, “I have determined to destroy Assyria.” This approach would be far more clear, consistent with his nature, and fit the Calvinistic idea of sovereignty. And it is completely understandable by the human mind. Instead, he simply says that he “changed His mind about the misfortune which He had pronounced against them” (Jed 26:19). Since we can see God communicate clearly concerning related matters, I do not think it is a reasonable explanation of this passage.

Further, he also gave us several texts from which we can demonstrate that he did change his mind. He said he was going to destroy Judah. And then, he said he would save them because of Hezekiah’s humble prayer. We can see God change his mind even if he did not come outright and say it in Jeremiah. Therefore, these exegetical notes do not seem capable of falling under an anthropomorphic metaphor.

Conclusion

I cannot help but conclude that the Calvinistic interpretation of 2 Kings 19:25 falls short of the exegetical data. When the entirety of Scripture concerning this event is taken into consideration, the evidence points to libertarian free will.

I do not think the Calvinists are intentionally unreasonable. I know most have the absolute best intentions regarding the text. I think they unintentionally overlook all the other data. But to produce sound exegesis, all the data must come in. And when it does, I conclude it proves their point wrong.


[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/course/knowing-the-bible-1-2-kings/#week-10-deliverance-under-hezekiah-further-decline-under-manasseh-and-amon-2-kings-181-2126

[2] John Frame: “The major components of the biblical concept of divine sovereignty or lordship are God’s control, authority, and presence. . .. God’s control is always efficacious; nothing can prevent him from accomplishing his purpose (see Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Isa. 14:24–27; 43:13; 55:11; Dan. 4:34–35; Rev. 3:7). It is also universal; that is, it covers all the events of nature and history. This includes the natural world (Ps. 65:9–11; 135:6-7), human history (Acts 17:26), and individual human life (1 Sam. 2:6–7; James 4:13–16). God even governs the free decisions of human beings (Prov. 16:9), including our attitudes toward others (Dan. 1:9; Ezra 6:22). More problematically, God even foreordains people’s sins (Exod. 4:21; Deut. 2:30; 1 Kings 22:23; Rom. 9:17–18). But, as sovereign Lord, he also ordains that some will come to faith and salvation (Eph. 2:4–10).” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-sovereignty-of-god/

[3] Paul Helm: “The providence of God is the working of God’s sovereignty to continually uphold, guide, and care for his creation. . .. Providence is detailed, ‘meticulous,’ and God continually exerts his power to keep his creation in being, without which the created would become nothing.” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/providence/

[4] Paul Rezkalla: “Most Calvinists believe in a form of determinism—that is, God has determined every single event. At each moment there is only one possible future: the future God has determined.” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-pray-if-god-has-already-determined-everything/

[5] Psalm 44:1; 77:5; 143:5; Isaiah 23:7; 51:9; Jeremiah 46:26; Lamentations 1:7; 5:21; and Micah 7:20.

[6] See Bruce K. Waltke, Micah, TOTC. Page 229. “‘From everlasting’ (AV; cf. NIV mg.) was probably based on a presumption of Christ’s pre-existence. The Hebrew (‘ōlām), used in connection with either the created order or God himself, can mean ‘from eternity on’ (cf. Pss 25:6; 90:2). It can also designate ‘ancient times’ within history, i.e. the distant past. If the reference to Bethlehem aims to evoke the memory of Jesse and David, then the latter meaning fits this context best.

Origins, in cognate Semitic languages, may celebrate a supernatural, quasi-divine origin of the king. On this evidence some scholars suggest that the word here also aims to underscore the Messiah’s supernatural origins. This is possible, but see the NIV mg. ‘Goings out’ is from the same root as the verb rendered literally in the previous line of this verse, ‘he will come forth’ (cf. AV). There it refers to his historical origins, which is probably true also in this parallel line. The Messiah, humanly speaking, will have the finest royal blood flowing in his veins (that is, he will be a servant of the Lord) and be an heir of God’s eternal covenant with David.

[7] See Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 13-27, page 358 for historical discussion.

[8] Ralph L. Smith, Word Biblical Commentary: Micah, page 35: “Perhaps the earliest identifiable historical reference in the book of Micah is in 1:10–16. This pericope probably describes the march of Sennacherib from Lachish to Jerusalem in 701 B.C. If this section is the work of Micah we have evidence that he prophesied at least to the end of the eighth century B.C. Jer 26:18 tells us that Micah predicted the fall of Jerusalem (3:12) during the reign of Hezekiah (715–687 B.C.).”

[9] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-pray-if-god-has-already-determined-everything/

[10] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/unchanging-god-regret-saul-king/

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