Empires are so very vulnerable to hubris. It always gets them, eventually.
When YHWH whistles for the Assyrian bee to inflict his burning but redemptive sting upon Judah, which has earned for itself the title ‘a godless people’, Assyria fails to grasp the part about redemption.
Against a godless nation (Judah) I (YHWH) send him (Assyria), and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few. (Isaiah 10:6–7 ESV)
The distance between ‘to take spoil and plunder’ and ‘to tread (Judah) down like the mire of the streets’, on the one hand, and ‘to destroy and to cut off nations’ on the other may seem like a trifle leading only to a nuance. But for this text, it represents a world of difference between YHWH’s intention and Assyria’s end-game. It manifests a distinction of purpose and of character that means everything. YHWH purposes (only…) to wound in order to heal. Assyria, the almost unchallengeable superpower of the moment, intends to exterminate.
If YHWH’s apparent surprise at Assyria’s severity raises ethical questions of its own about the divine comportment, that matter must await another day.
For now, it is Assyria’s imperial hubris that catches that eye.
For he says: ‘Are not my commanders all kings? Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?’ (Isaiah 10:8–11 ESV)
Sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, success persuades the powerful that the past predicts the future. It does not. The system is not so closed.
There is always cause for humility, not least the stalking about of unseen personalities, one of whom dares to suggest that the nations are before him like dust on a scale.
Assyria, as the text quotes that great nation’s inner thoughts here, expects that a certain set of answers to its arrogant barrage of rhetorical questions is obvious.
Are not my commanders all kings? Indeed!
Is not Calno not like Carchemish? Of course, my liege.
Is not Hamath like Arpad? Not a stroke of difference between them, my king.
Is not Samaria like Damascus? Without doubt.
Shall my hand not then take Jerusalem and her idols? Go for it and be glorious!
What the biblical text knows is that empire becomes both blind and forgetful to the reality that it is not alone on the field of greatness. Others become restless, and fidget for the moment when this self-absorbed pretender shall be put down.
And for Isaiah, a most important word remains yet to be spoken:
One of them is no idol.