Like a Caged Bird

Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the LORD, even thou only.—Isaiah 37:20

Tom Ruggirello

The phrase, “Like a Caged Bird,” is taken from a six-sided clay tablet called the “Taylor Cylinder.” Presently found in the British Museum, it is one of the most perfect archaeological specimens of its kind ever found. Its historical and biblical significance is immense. It contains 487 lines of closely written, but very legible, cuneiform text. It records eight military expeditions of Sennacherib, king of Assyria. The one of great interest to Bible Students is his siege against Jerusalem, during the reign of King Hezekiah.

The following is a translation of lines 11-21 from the center column of that tablet. Sennacherib writes:

11. I fixed upon him. And of Hezekiah (king of the)
12. Jews, who had not submitted to my yoke,
13. forty-six of his fenced cities, and the strongholds and the smaller cities
14. which were round about them and which were without number,
15. by the battering rams, and by the attack of engines
16. and by the assaults of foot soldiers, and ...
17. I besieged, I captured 200,150 people, small and great, male and female,
18. horses, and mules, and asses, and camels, and men,
19. and sheep innumerable from their midst I brought out, and
20. I reckoned (them) as spoil. Hezekiah himself like a caged bird within Jerusalem,
21. his royal city I shut in ...

Much of what was written here we find confirmed by Scripture. In 2 Kings 18:13 we are told that in the 14th year of Hezekiah Sennacherib came up against all the fenced cities of Judah and took them. Then in verse 17 of that chapter we read of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem.

There is an interesting observation to be made about the clay cylinder. Concerning Jerusalem, Sennacherib wrote that he had it “shut in.” Notice what he does not say. He never claims to have taken the city; just that he surrounded it and had Hezekiah shut in like a caged bird. The implication of Sennacherib’s tablet is that Jerusalem posed no special problems to his army. Never does he mention that in the siege his entire army was destroyed. It is the biblical record, which reveals that important detail. In 2 Kings 19:35 we are told that while the Assyrian army was encamped around Jerusalem the angel of the Lord slew 185,000 Assyrian men. The next morning, after the destruction of his army, Sennacherib fled back to Nineveh his capital city.

The Bible goes on to tell us that after his return to Nineveh, while worshipping in the temple of his heathen god, he was murdered by his two sons. It is certainly an indictment against his god, that even while praying to him, Sennacherib was not safe from his own children. What a contrast to the security of Jerusalem. While surrounded by an immense army, Hezekiah prayed safely in the temple of God. It is a lesson that transcends the ages. God’s people dwell under the shadow of the Almighty, and though outward enemies may seem overwhelming at times, his watch care over them is unfailing.

The boasting words of Sennacherib’s clay tablet were true. He had Jerusalem “shut in” and Hezekiah trapped like a “caged bird,” but he failed to tell the entire story. What a different conclusion we must draw when we know the facts of what actually transpired.

Devoted King Hezekiah

Hezekiah was a fascinating figure in the history of Israel. He began to reign 14 years before Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. When he became king, he was like a man on a mission. His goal was to undo all the sins of his father Ahaz. In 2 Chronicles 29:3 we are shown a glimpse into the heart of Hezekiah. It was in the first month of his reign that he repaired the temple and cleansed it from the idolatrous things that Ahaz had brought in. He then gathered the Levites and prepared them to resume the temple services. His stated desire was to make a covenant with the Lord and turn away God’s wrath from Israel.

Following the preparation of the temple and the Levites, Hezekiah brought the rulers of the city to the temple. Through the priests he offered seven each of bullocks, rams, lambs, and he-goats, as a sin offering for Israel and the sanctuary. Following this series of sacrifices we are told that they sang praises with gladness, and bowed their heads in worship.

After this remarkable scene Hezekiah instructed all the people to bring in their offerings to the Lord. Their response was inspiring. They brought in 70 bullocks, 100 rams, 200 lambs, 600 oxen, and 3,000 sheep. In fact, there were so many animals brought by the people that there were not enough priests to offer them all. As a result, the Levites were called upon to assist.

What a stirring moment in the history of Israel! All these events were brought about because one man wanted to reinstate the worship of God. There is a simple lesson here, which suggests that the Lord can do wonderful things through people who honor him. At times, we as Christians may doubt that the Lord can use us to be a blessing to others. It is at such times that this lesson makes a meaningful point. We should never allow ourselves to believe that we are incapable of serving the Lord, or of helping his people see the right course for their lives. God’s greatest power is often manifested through the humblest vessels.

The Passover Reinstated

In 2 Chronicles 30 we are told that all of Hezekiah’s work in the temple happened around the time of the Passover. However, since the priesthood had not yet been properly sanctified, Hezekiah announced that the Passover would be observed on the following month. It had been determined that this change was allowed in the Mosaic Law. Letters were then sent to all of Israel announcing the reinstatement of the Passover. These letters went also to the 10-tribe kingdom of the north with admonitions to return to the God of their fathers. Though many northerners laughed and scorned the letters, there were those who humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem for the Passover observance.

The participation of these northern brethren however created a problem for Hezekiah. Since they had not been properly cleansed, their participation in the Passover was a violation of the Law. As a result, Hezekiah prayed that the Lord would pardon them for this sin (2 Chronicles 30:18). The Lord hearkened to Hezekiah and forgave them. In this experience we see again the pure heart of Hezekiah. He was determined to reestablish the worship of God, and reunite all of Israel.

His desire to help the Israelites in the north was one of the impressive qualities of Hezekiah. After Solomon’s death, some 250 years earlier, there had been a division between the ten tribes of the north and the two tribes of Benjamin and Judah. Ever since that time they had lived under separate governments and different kings. In the north, idolatry was prevalent for a much longer time than in Judah. During the reign of Hezekiah’s father Ahaz, northern Israel had even formed a union with Syria and attacked Judah. History thus records a time when Israelites were striking out against their own brethren. Hezekiah could very easily have harbored bitterness toward the northern kingdom, but here his thoughts were just the opposite. He wanted them to come back to the Lord for their own blessing and because it was the right thing to do. The principle we see manifested through the conduct of Hezekiah is very clear. Jesus gave it to us in Matthew 5:44 when he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

But the lesson strikes even closer to home because these were Hezekiah’s brethren. The ten tribes had been allured into thinking that serving Baal was better than serving God. But in reality, it only meant the removal of God’s protective care and made them vulnerable before their enemies. As Hezekiah did for his brethren, we see that the greatest thing we can do for our brethren is to encourage them to sanctify themselves and to re-devote themselves to the Lord. We can do that best by living sanctified lives ourselves, and then, by words of encouragement.

Today’s world also has attractions that can draw us away from the true worship of God. Idolatry takes on many modern forms. The spirit of Hezekiah teaches us to stay focused on the Lord and his service, and endeavor to help and encourage the brethren. It is a noble goal, one that we should each take to heart, and most clearly reflects the character of the one we serve.

A Double Seven-day Celebration

Looking back to Hezekiah’s reinstitution of the Passover, we see another extraordinary event. The seven-day Passover celebration was such a great blessing that the whole assembly took counsel to keep another seven-day feast (2 Chronicles 30:23). In verse 26 we read “there was great joy in Jerusalem: for since the time of Solomon . . . there was not the like in Jerusalem.” The chapter ends at verse 27 with the words: “Then the priests the Levites arose and blessed the people: and their voice was heard, and their prayer came up to his holy dwelling place, even unto heaven.”

It had been a long time since Israel’s prayers had been heard in heaven. The reason, of course, was not because heaven wasn’t listening, but because Israel had not been praying. Now, through the influence of Hezekiah, it was finally praying again. Following this joyous time in Jerusalem all the people that were present went out to all the cities of Judah and broke down the statues and the groves that had been erected in their idolatry. This spirit of reformation went even to the north, to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had utterly destroyed all the idols.

In examining this inspiring story we ask, is it possible that the Lord intended the work of Hezekiah to be a picture of a greater work yet to be done? As we focus on his work, one parallel comes to mind. In Hezekiah we may be given an illustration of the work of the Ancient Worthies, and the great joy that will follow when the new covenant is inaugurated.

Remember the words we read in 2 Chronicles 29:10 that Hezekiah’s desire was to make a “covenant” with the Lord. He wanted to renew the law covenant, which had been God’s avenue of blessing to Israel. The law covenant was still there, but it had been lost sight of by Israel. Hezekiah’s desire to reestablish it pictures the establishment of the new covenant. The new covenant is based on the old law covenant, which likewise has been largely lost sight of by Israel. The reason Hezekiah wanted to renew the covenant was to avert God’s wrath from Israel. So, in our day, and in a much larger sense, Israel has just experienced the severest punishment of her existence, in the double of disfavor (Isaiah. 40:1,2). Chronologically, Israel’s period of disfavor is over, and we have witnessed wonderful signs which prove it. Soon a new covenant will be inaugurated and the relationship between God and Israel can take on an even grander meaning than before. Then her warfare will be fully accomplished and Israel will be greatly blessed. Then she will no longer be negligent of her worship and responsibility to God.

Hezekiah’s work of conversion began first with the rulers of Jerusalem. They were the first to bring their offerings to the Lord. This might picture the work of the Ancient Worthies in converting Jews then present in the land of Israel. By reestablishing the priesthood and temple sacrifices Hezekiah pictured the work of pointing Israel to Jesus, as the true Messiah. The Ancient Worthies will teach Israel about the work of the antitypical priesthood of the Gospel age, and their role as the great mediator between God and man. Because of the presence of the mediator, Israel’s prayers will again be heard in heaven.

Picture the conditions described in Hezekiah’s day. “There was great joy in Jerusalem: for since the time of Solomon . . . there was not the like in Jerusalem.” How beautifully that illustrates the joy that Israel will experience when they obey the voice of the Ancient Worthies and turn away from their human philosophies, renewing their covenant with God. Joy can be a difficult thing to describe, but it is described in the actions of the people when, after one week of observing the feast of Passover, they wanted to extend it for an additional week.

The Kingdom Celebration of the Passover

This Passover celebration reinstituted by Hezekiah is a picture of Israel’s recognition of the antitypical Passover Lamb. The fact that Israel celebrated a month later than the normal time indicates to us that this is a picture which follows the Gospel age. It is the celebration of Jesus as the antitypical lamb by Israel and the world. In addition, it indicates a remembrance of the spiritual journey of the church during the Gospel age and its deliverance as the spiritual first born.

This picture is substantiated by the actions allowed under the law in Numbers 9:10-12. When an Israelite could not partake of the Passover because of being on a journey, or for being unclean through contact with death, he was allowed to observe it in the following month. Being on a journey pictures being estranged from God. Being unclean through contact with death corresponds to the Adamic curse. These have both prevented mankind from worshiping God in an acceptable manner. Observing the Passover on the following month, then, is a picture of the time when the world will be able to worship properly, after the close of the Gospel age.

One of the thrilling aspects of the Hezekiah story was his desire to unite all of Israel. This seems to represent the call for every Israelite in the world to come and take part in the earthly government set up through the Ancient Worthies. The response to Hezekiah’s letters and proclamations was mixed. Many came and shared in the work and the joy, others only mocked. Likewise, there will be a similar response during the initial stages of the kingdom. After the Ancient Worthies are established as leaders of Israel many more Jews will return and share in their ground-breaking work. Others, too deeply entrenched in whatever form of idolatry they have set up, will only mock. Some might say: “Those are the old ways. Religion has never served my needs. I have other gods.” Whatever the excuse, some Jews will not claim their heritage, and because of that they will miss out on a great blessing.

Restoring the Worship of Jehovah

The eventual result of Hezekiah’s work was that the people went out and tore down all the idols and everything associated with idolatry. In that we see a wonderful picture of how the kingdom will spread! The joy that begins in Jerusalem, with those able to see the vision, will spread like wildfire. All modern forms of idolatry will be torn down one by one as the knowledge of the Lord spreads. What a prospect lays before us as we see pictured the vindication of God’s name and his worship restored to our race.

The result of the worship in Jerusalem was that the people brought their own offerings to the temple. So many animals were brought that the priests could not keep up, and the Levites were called upon to assist. These sacrifices are similar to the after-atonement-day sacrifices that we see in the tabernacle. They picture the response from all over the world to the kingdom work. There will be an overflowing response from mankind, shown by the multitude of offerings brought to the temple. By their example, the Ancient Worthies will show the way to make a consecration pleasing to the Lord, just as Hezekiah himself led the way by offering 1,000 bullocks and 7,000 sheep of his own (2Chronicles 30:24).

We find another connection to the future work of the Ancient Worthies in 2 Chronicles 30:17-20. Many of the northern Israelites had participated in the feast of Passover without being properly cleansed. Hezekiah then prayed for them and the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah and forgave them. This may indicate that there will be many whose heart’s desire will be to know the Lord, and yet they will be so backward in their understanding of how to serve or properly approach him, that they will make mistakes. Here we see a picture of the Ancient Worthies showing them that God will forgive their mistakes. They will explain the legality of their forgiveness and how Jesus and the church will operate as a mediator during the age. Perfection will not be required, but heart intent will be of primary concern.

In 2 Chronicles 31:4 Hezekiah had commanded that the people should start giving their tithes again to support the work of the priesthood. Soon after the command was broadcast there came in an abundance of the first fruits of corn, wine, oil, and honey. The people also brought in their tithes of oxen and sheep. In verse 6 the amount of their offerings is described as being piled up—“heaps, heaps” (Rotherham). So many tithes had been brought that special storage chambers had to be built just to hold them all. What a lesson of free will giving this teaches. In this generous response of the people we see a picture of the world’s change of heart.

After coming to an appreciation of the Lord, mankind will give in full abundance. They will finally learn the principle that one receives by giving, not by hoarding. The human spirit will become generous. It will place a real importance on the things of the Lord, and give the best that they have. How we look forward to the time when the Lord’s things will be given top priority in the world. Then the great artists, the great musicians, the great craftsmen will freely give their talents to the Lord. All the willing and obedient will ask themselves, “What can I give to the Lord for all his goodness toward me? How can I show my appreciation for the resurrection, for the love of the human family and for the goodness of the earth?” What a time of change this will mark for the world, when its continual giving to God will be so abundant.

Sennacherib’s Invasion

The next chapter in this story takes an interesting turn. We’ve come back to the story of Sennacherib, now in the 14th year of Hezekiah. Many years after the restitution of Israel’s worship we see the testing of Hezekiah along very different lines. In 2 Chronicles 32:1 we are told of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah. As a result, Hezekiah went about making preparations for war. He shut up all the water supplies so that the Assyrian army would not benefit from them. This was the time that Hezekiah’s tunnel was constructed so that Jerusalem would have a water supply, but those outside the walls would not. The walls of Jerusalem were built up and fortified and many weapons of war were prepared. In 2 Chronicles 32:6-8 Hezekiah also tried to mentally prepare his soldiers. It says that “[he] spake comfortably to them saying, be strong and courageous. Be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more for us than with him: With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles. And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah.”

In Hezekiah’s words we see the battle cry for all of the Lord’s people, no matter where or when their battles are fought. Fear can have a paralyzing effect. When it paralyzes one of the Lord’s people, the reason is usually because of an inability to see God’s invisible hand. Fear is a weapon that the adversary has used for thousands of years. We see it being used here against Israel. In 2 Kings 18 and 19 we have an account of the psychological battle waged by Sennacherib.

Before besieging Jerusalem Sennacherib sent three emissaries to weaken the mental resolve of Hezekiah and Judah. When they arrived, Hezekiah sent his representatives out to meet them. Rabshakeh, one of the Assyrian emissaries, asked Hezekiah’s men where their confidence came from. Did it come from their friendship with Egypt? Egypt, he said, was but a bruised reed, so weak that it could not help. To shake them further he said that if their trust was in the Lord, then that was ill founded as well, since it was God himself who had sent Sennacherib to destroy them. Israel, he claimed, would not stand against the great king of Assyria. No one had ever stood against him.

Hezekiah’s men were shaken by Rabshakeh’s menacing tirade. They asked the Assyrian to speak to them in the Syrian language so that the Hebrew soldiers standing on the walls would not understand their words. But instead, seeing that his fear tactic was taking hold, he shouted in Hebrew so all the surrounding men of Judah could clearly hear him. His words are recorded in 2 Kings 18:28-35. As we read these verses one can almost feel the power with which he spoke. He admonished them not to be deceived by Hezekiah for no one would be able to deliver them from the Assyrian army. If they would make an agreement with Assyria their lives would be spared and the city would not be destroyed. He goes on in the rest of the chapter to list all the areas that Assyria had conquered and how none of those gods were able to deliver the people.

This was an overwhelming display of intimidation. Who could deny the power of Assyria? Who could argue against the military conquests all around them? Jerusalem was like an island now, “a remnant,” as Hezekiah would call it. The observable facts seemed to fly in the face of Judah’s faith in God.

Hezekiah’s representatives came to him with rent clothes. They were afraid. Hezekiah himself rent his clothes and put on sackcloth as a symbol of mourning. He went into the temple to pray to the Lord. He sent word to Isaiah the prophet. In return, Isaiah sent a message back that they should not be afraid of the blasphemous words of the Assyrians, that the Lord would deliver Jerusalem.

But the onslaught of intimidating words continued. In 2 Kings 19:10-13 Rabshakeh sent a letter to Hezekiah with similar boasting and threatening words. Hezekiah took this letter and went into the temple to lay it before the Lord. What an example we see in Hezekiah! When his enemies terrified him, he went to the Lord for help. He told God just how he felt and how he greatly feared the enemy.

God Answered Their Prayers

Again the Lord sent word through Isaiah that Hezekiah had been heard. In fact, God said that he would put hooks in Sennacherib’s nose and a bridle in his lips and lead him back to where he came from. It was at this point, with the approach of the Assyrian army, that the angel of the Lord slew 185,000 men.

There is a phrase in the account found in 2 Chronicles 32 that gives us a completely different slant of what happened that day than we get from reading the words of Sennacherib’s clay cylinder. In verse 21 we are told that Sennacherib “returned with shame of face to his own land.” Remember how the cylinder read? He said, I took great spoil and Hezekiah was like a caged bird in Jerusalem. The truth is that all his boastings were more pride than reality. His mighty army had not put even one scratch on the walls of Jerusalem, because it was God’s city, and those within it believed in his might. Faith will always be the correct response to any attack, any trial, or any experience, no matter how overwhelming or impossible the circumstances might seem.

In looking at this siege of Jerusalem we again ask the question, could this experience be symbolic of some future event? Remember in our previous picture of Hezekiah’s restoration, we saw the kingdom work of the Ancient Worthies in restoring true worship to Israel and then to the world. Since Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem happened years later, after the restitution work of Hezekiah had prospered in the land, the attack of Assyria might picture the little season when Satan will be loosed out of his prison and go out to deceive the nations once again.

That is what Sennacherib’s representatives tried to do. They tried to deceive the people into believing that Hezekiah was lying to them, that, in fact, the only way for them to sit under their own vine and fig tree was to make an agreement with him and give presents to Sennacherib. He would then lead them out of Israel, into a land of milk and honey, where they would live and not die. It follows the pattern of Satan’s great lies. Satan’s tactics of deceit, fear, and intimidation will be used all over again in the little season.

In Revelation 20:8 we are told that those who follow him will be as the sand of the sea. It is remarkable that any will follow Satan after having experienced the great restitution work of the kingdom. But as we see in the distorted history of Sennacherib, “pride goeth before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). Given the same circumstances as experienced by Sennacherib, it might be observed that a sincere person would have seen the display of God’s power and be humbled, not humiliated by it. He would repent, and believe. But as an evil-hearted man, Sennacherib only cared about covering up his humiliating experience.

In Revelation 20:9 we are told that in the little season, Satan’s host will surround the camp of the saints, the beloved city. In our picture we see that is just what Sennacherib did. In both cases we see the miraculous destruction of Jerusalem’s enemy. The lesson is powerful. No one can stand against the Lord. No one can intimidate the Lord, and no one can do those things to anyone who truly believes in him.

A Song of Degrees

The story of Hezekiah does not end here. In 2Kings 20 we find out that during the siege of Jerusalem Hezekiah was very sick with a severe boil. Isaiah came and told him to get his house in order because this sickness was unto death. Hezekiah then prayed with tears to the Lord, and again his prayer was heard. In 2 Kings 20:6 God assured Hezekiah that he would extend his life by 15 years. Hezekiah asked for a sign that this would happen. The sign he requested was that the shadow of the sun should go backwards ten degrees. After the miraculous sign was given and Hezekiah healed, he expressed his heartfelt appreciation to the Lord. At the end of Isaiah 38:20 he says, “So we will play my songs on stringed instruments all the days of our life at the house of the LORD.”

In these last words of Hezekiah we are given a clue that takes us to another part of the Bible. What songs could he be referring to? In the Book of Psalms there are 15 psalms that are subtitled “A Song of Degrees.” These consist of Psalms 120 to 134. In appendix 67 of the Companion Bible the thought is presented that these 15 chapters correspond to the 15 years that Hezekiah’s life was extended. It contends that these are the chapters that Hezekiah was referring to when he said that they would sing his songs. These chapters then were written to commemorate the Lord’s deliverance of Jerusalem and the extension of his own life.

The word for degrees in those subtitles is the same Hebrew word for the ten degrees that the shadow went back on the sundial. We find that in those 15 psalms there are three repetitive themes. The 15 chapters seem to be divided into five sets of three chapters each. The three themes follow each of the three chapters in the divisions.

The first theme is distress from the deceit and scorning of others. The second theme is trust in the Lord as expressed by God’s people. The third theme is the blessings and peace that come to his people as a result of their trust. Distress, trust, and peace: these form a universal theme of spiritual development. The words of these chapters parallel the personal experiences of Hezekiah.

In Psalm 124:6-8 (part of the songs of degrees) Hezekiah makes a clear allusion to Sennacherib’s contention that he was a caged bird. He writes, “Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

The wonderful lesson in all this is that, as in the days of old, the Lord can break any trap that God’s people find themselves in. He can truly set them free from whatever ensnares them. He did it for his ancient people, he does it for his church, and he will do it for his human family.