The Enemy at the Gate
People like to give pastors things to read, I am discovering. Hardly a week goes by without an article or a book appearing on my desk or church mailbox, or a link in my inbox. You should really read this, pastor! A quick survey of the accumulated suggestions of the past week or so reveals an article on the history of Mennonites in southern Alberta, a book about the “battle” against same-sex marriage, a review of a book about dying well, promotional material for an educational institution, and an expose of the Alberta tar sands. Oh, and a drawing of Sponge Bob with “Happy Early Easter!” written beside it that showed up after church on Sunday. It’s not just the grown ups who like to leave things in my office, evidently.
There is also a poem. There’s an older gentleman in our church who keeps a collection of poems in his shirt pocket. Some are hand-copied, some typed and printed off. He carries them around with him wherever he goes, and he loves to talk with me about them. This poem, in particular, he has given to me no less than four times in the last three years, the latest of which was this morning at coffee. It was written in 1815 by the English poet Lord Byron, and is called The Destruction of Sennacherib.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee. Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green, That host with their banners at sunset were seen: Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown, That host on the morrow lay withered and strown. For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed; And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still! And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide, But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride; And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf, And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf. And there lay the rider distorted and pale, With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail: And the tents were all silent, the banners alone, The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown. And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail, And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal; And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword, Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.
The Destruction of Sennacherib is a poetic rendering of events described in 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-37. During the reign of King Hezekiah (716 – 697 BC), the forces of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, descend upon Jerusalem after having mowed down a good chunk of the rest of Judah. Sennacherib’s representative stands at the gate of Jerusalem in front of Israel’s leaders and the people of Jerusalem, beating his chest, uttering threats, offering terms for surrender, mocking the Israelites, even suggesting that Israel’s God was the one who had put him up to it.
Israel’s representatives plead with the Assyrian commander to speak Aramaic not Hebrew. They don’t want the people to understand the terror that is coming. The Assyrian commander sneers, and utters what is easily the most memorable phrase I have encountered this week:
But the commander replied, “Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?”
Well, at any rate Hezekiah is understandably distraught. He tears his clothes and casts himself on the mercy of God. The prophet Isaiah then delivers a stirring message which, in condensed form, essentially says, “this far and no further for Sennacherib.” The angel of the Lord proceeds to pay a nocturnal visit to the Assyrian army, wiping out nearly two hundred thousand troops in a blood bath worthy of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Sennacherib returns to Nineveh with his tail between his legs, where he is eventually murdered by one of his power-hungry sons. And the people of Israel live happily ever after—or, at least until the next round of idolatry-invasion-exile.
At any rate, while I’ve always read the poem with interest when this man gives it to me, I’ve never been quite able to figure out why this poem in particular is so important to him. I’ve asked him, but he mostly just says that he likes the way it condenses the story found in 2 Kings and Isaiah, the way the poet puts the words together, etc. He appreciates it for its artistic merits, he says. But I’ve always thought there was more to it than that.
After he gave me the poem this morning, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to the state of affairs in the church, the nation, the culture. We have lost our way, he lamented. We no longer believe the Word of God, right and wrong are seen as “matters of interpretation,” our nation tries to be all things to all people rather than obeying God. There was a time when things were built on God’s law, but now we think we know better… In his view, we have ceased to honour God in our churches and in our nation as we once did, and we are suffering the consequences.
And as I listened to my older friend speak about these matters we have spoken about many times before, it finally dawned on me. The Destruction of Sennacherib is a poem about God vindicating himself and his people in the face of a sneering, snarling, ridiculing enemy that threatens the people and all they hold dear. It is a poem that expresses this man’s longing for God to answer those who “come down like a wolf on the fold.” The swords and spears our present-day enemies carry might look different, their attire might not “gleam in purple and gold,” but, for him, the threat they pose is no less real. The poem is, finally, nothing less than the expression of his longing for the God of heaven and earth to act, in justice and truth for a people quaking at the gate.
I have recycled the previous three copies of The Destruction of Sennacherib that this dear saint has given me. But I’m going to keep this one. I’m going to hang it in my study—somewhere unavoidably prominent—as a reminder of the hope and the tenacious conviction that motivate my friend to carry it around in his shirt pocket. And even if my hopes might look somewhat different in emphasis and tone than his, even if I might understand the “enemy at the gate” a bit differently, when I look at this poem I, too, will reaffirm my longing for the day when all that mocks and ridicules and opposes God’s intentions for the world, all that terrifies and confuses those who cling to Him, will “melt like snow in the glance of the Lord.”