The twelfth king of Judea, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, was a man of extraordinary qualities and piety. He had truly been a comfort to the suffering people even while his godless father was yet on the throne. The prophets who had condemned Ahaz and his clique of notables pointed to Hezekiah as the savior of the people and of G-d's religion, at a time when Judea had sunk to the bottom of political and spiritual depravity.
Indeed, as soon as Hezekiah had ascended to the throne, he dedicated himself to a complete reversal of the policies of his father. He not only destroyed the numerous idols which disgraced his kingdom, but he also cut down the groves of idolatry which had been spared even by some of his pious predecessors. This and many similar acts helped Hezekiah succeed in his untiring efforts to eliminate idolatry to a degree which even his pious ancestors Asa and Jehoshaphat had never attained.
Hezekiah did all he could to reinstate the pure worship of G-d. He organized instruction in the laws of the Torah throughout the country, and he restored the daily services of the Holy Temple in all its splendor. The regular pilgrimages of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, commanded by G-d, had been stopped during the years of misery and oppression under Ahaz. Hezekiah was eager to renew these pilgrimages to the Temple three times a year, as prescribed by the Torah, and he succeeded in doing so.
The Temple itself was thoroughly cleansed and renovated; and its old glory impressed the people when they came to Jerusalem to bring their offerings to G-d. Hezekiah, moreover, organized a magnificent celebration of the Feast of Passover in Jerusalem. For this occasion he sent invitations not only to all parts of his own land but also to the inhabitants of the northern kingdom. He asked them to take part in the great festival and make it an occasion to return to G-d. But only a few followed his call. Those who came were inspired by the ceremonies of Hezekiah's holy Passover celebration and his sincere sermons. They stayed in Judea and helped strengthen the land.
As soon as Hezekiah felt that his war against idolatry had been won, he turned his attention to the reorganization of the army and the reconstruction of the fortifications that had been torn down by various enemies during Ahaz' weak reign. With his well equipped and thoroughly trained army, Hezekiah set out to recover the provinces that had been lost and to punish the less formidable neighbors who had harrowed the people of Judea. He defeated the army of the Philistines and took their stronghold Gaza. The other neighbors were intimidated into voluntary submission.
But while Hezekiah was thus succeeding in restoring the political and spiritual power of his land, the neighboring kingdom of Israel was going completely to pieces, and the rest of its residents were being led into captivity or killed. The cruelties of the Assyrian conquerors opened the eyes of the people of Judea to the contrast of their own good fortune. They clung to G-d even more ardently in order not to draw guilt upon themselves and suffer the fate of their brothers.
The prophet Isaiah strengthened Hezekiah with the Divine assurance that no nation would be able to do harm to the land as long as the people went with G-d. He even suggested to Hezekiah that Judea should completely throw off the yoke of Assyria which it had suffered since King Ahaz' unfortunate reign by having to pay regular tribute in recognition of Assyrian supremacy. Hezekiah's faith in G-d's help was so great that he did not doubt the prophet's word that even Assyria, then the greatest and mightiest military power, would be unable to punish Judea for her defiance; and he made definite plans to stop the tribute payments, and to prepare against the certain attack.
Conspiracy against Assyria
But while Hezekiah's own plans were exclusively based upon faith and confidence in G-d's help, some of his counselors, at their head his chancellor Shebna, tried to utilize the situation in order to strengthen their own prestige and interests. They, too, planned to rebel against Assyria, but rather on the basis of political considerations, instead of the authorization of G-d's word. Their intention was to join the slowly crystallizing forces of resistance against Assyria, centering around Kush, Babylonia, Egypt, and other idolatrous nations.
Sennaherib's Punitory Expedition
Sennaherib, the king of Assyria, soon learned of the revolution brewing among his subjugated and rival nations. In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah's reign, he set out with a large army to punish each rebellious nation separately.
Sennaherib's troops poured into Judea and captured a few cities. Egypt and Babylon did not rush to Judea's aid, and Hezekiah found himself in a hopeless position facing the overwhelming invasion of the mighty Assyrian army. Under the circumstances, Hezekiah begged Sennaherib for a peace treaty. Sennaherib, greedy for treasure, exacted a considerable quantity of gold and silver as his price for the withdrawal of his troops. To comply with this demand, Hezekiah was compelled to despoil his own palace and the Holy Temple.
However, Hezekiah understood very well that Sennaherib would not rest till Judea was completely destroyed like her brother nation, the Kingdom of Israel. He therefore began to strengthen and fortify the entire country. The male population was mobilized and trained. Jerusalem was well stocked with provisions, and its walls and fortifications greatly strengthened. Moreover, all the food and water-wells outside of Jerusalem were destroyed in order to deprive the enemy of supplies.