In the Bible Hezekiah is held up as a great example of faithful service of God. In history, however, he seems to have been a king who followed disastrous policies for his country. How can there be such different evaluations of his reign?
Name and dates
Hezekiah was the king of Judah at the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 7th centuries BCE. Shortly before his reign, Israel, the kingdom immediately to the north of Judah, fell to the Assyrians and effectively passed out of the pages of history. After that the Bible story mainly concentrates on Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.
The name Hezekiah means something like ‘The LORD is my strength.’ His father was Ahaz, whom the Bible condemns as a very wicked king, and Hezekiah is said to have put things right after he came to the throne. Unfortunately the date of transition is not certain, as the Bible gives different dates in different places. Perhaps he acted as a co-regent with his father for part of the time. At any rate, he was certainly king by 715 BCE at the latest and reigned for nearly thirty years.
In the Bible the main section for knowledge about Hezekiah is 2 Kgs 18–20. There is another later account in 2 Chr 29–32, which concentrates more on his religious policies while also summarizing the material from Kings. In the first half of the book of Isaiah we find a lot of the material from Kings is repeated in chapters 36–39, but there are also a number of prophetic oracles which seem to be very critical of Hezekiah’s policies (even though he is not mentioned there by name); see, for instance, Isa 1:5–9; 22:1–14; 30:1–18; 31:1–5.
Hezekiah is also mentioned in Assyrian sources which relate to his rebellion against Sennacherib. They are clear that Hezekiah was defeated, which is a bit different from what the Old Testament says. There are also pictures on stone slabs with some accompanying texts in the Assyrian language depicting Sennacherib’s siege and defeat of the important Judean city of Lachish; these ‘reliefs’ are now on display in the British Museum.
Finally, we know from the results of archaeological excavations that much of the country was indeed devastated at the turn of the centuries and that it took a long time to recover. Lachish itself is a very clear example of this; the siege ramp and scenes of the intense battle are clearly exposed.
Visitors to Jerusalem are often encouraged to walk through the major water tunnel called ‘Hezekiah’s tunnel.’ An inscription was found there too, telling of its construction. It may be that Hezekiah was responsible for this (see 2 Kgs 20:20) but some scholars date the tunnel slightly differently.
The Old Testament stresses that early in his reign Hezekiah undertook a major reform of the religion of Judah (2 Kgs 18:3–7; 2 Chr 29–31). He returned to a more pure form of the worship of the God of Judah, Yahweh (usually translated ‘the LORD’ in English Bibles). Based on this, a major theme that joins many of the narratives about Hezekiah together is his ‘trust’ in God. Indeed, 2 Kgs 18:5 says that there was no other king like him in this regard.
The Assyrian campaign
Assyria was the dominant power at that time and had already obliterated Israel from the map. Hezekiah was the leader of a rebellion of a number of small states in the region and tried to get the support of Egypt as well. After the death of the Assyrian king Sargon in 705 BCE, it took several years for his successor Sennacherib to get established, and Hezekiah saw this as his opportunity.
In 701 BCE, however, Sennacherib came to deal with him. The precise course of events is difficult to reconstruct from all the sources we have available. Broadly speaking, it is clear that Sennacherib was successful. He destroyed many towns (2 Kgs 18:13) and Hezekiah had to pay him tribute as a token of loyalty (2 Kgs 18:14–16). There was no more rebellion after that either. The Assyrian sources suggest that it was a straightforward Assyrian victory.
The Old Testament sees things a bit differently, however. There are some long narratives about Sennacherib’s dealings with Hezekiah, who was blockaded in Jerusalem. In one account Sennacherib has to withdraw because of some bad news from home (2 Kgs 19:7). In another, the Assyrian army is miraculously struck down by the angel of the LORD, after which Sennacherib withdrew (2 Kgs 19:35–36).
It is not easy to put all this together, but it certainly looks as though for some reason Sennacherib was not able to complete his campaign as comprehensively as he usually did. After all, Hezekiah remained on the throne, whereas rebels did not usually survive so simply. All we can say is that Hezekiah certainly submitted to Assyria and that his country took decades to recover from the effects of his rebellion. So politically it might be concluded that he was a failure even though religiously the Bible sees him as a hero.
Interestingly, his son Manasseh, who reigned for fifty-five years after Hezekiah, was the one who really restored Judah’s economy. But in the Bible he is presented as more or less the most wicked of all the kings of Judah throughout its existence.
Hezekiah in later memory
The picture of Hezekiah gets better and better as time goes on. In the books of Chronicles he is praised even more strongly than in Kings, and this continues into the apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) book of Ecclesiasticus (48:17–25). Indeed, in later Jewish sources he even becomes a messianic figure, and famous passages like Isa 9:1–6 can be referred to him.
It is clear, therefore, that Hezekiah is a fine example of the way the Bible sometimes sees and evaluates people and events very differently from what we might first expect.
Grabbe, Lester L. Pages 68-71 in 1&2 Kings: An Introduction and Story Guide. History and Story in Ancient Israel. T&T Clark Study Guides to the Old Testament. London; Oxford; New York; New Delhi; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2017.