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What If? [The Great Battles Of History]

Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 2-017 (General Information)


by Ross Prout

A fascinating new book has come on the market entitled “What if?”. Edited by Robert Cowley and published by Pan Books, it is a compilation of articles, written by different historians, concerning what might have happened if some of the great battles of history had turned out differently. Often, the difference between victory and defeat was some matter of chance, and the whole course of human history would have been altered with an alternative outcome.

The battles are dealt with chronologically, and the first one deals with the seige of Jerusalem in 701BC by the Assyrian army under the ruler Sennacherib. The author of this article is William H McNeill, and whilst it is clear that he prefers naturalistic explanations to the biblical understanding of divine intervention, he nevertheless handles the biblical text as a reliable source of historical information.

The battle/seige referred to was certainly of great significance in the unfolding story of God’s people. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been utterly defeated. King Hezekiah was on the throne of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, advised by the prophet Isaiah. He had entered into a military alliance with the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Philistines against the great world power of the day, Assyria, and it had been a debacle. Dozens of fortified cities had been defeated by Sennacherib’s army, and then Jerusalem itself found itself under seige. When all seemed lost, the Assyrian army was struck down by a mysterious pestilence, and Sennacherib withdrew his army. What the disease was there is no way of knowing, but it meant that Judah was left intact, and Hezekiah remained on his throne. Judah remained a vassal state, yes, but the House of David stayed alive, and the religion of Israel survived. It is these two factors that McNeill sees as of greatest significance.

He says, “What if Sennacherib, King of Assyria, had conquered Jerusalem in 701BC when he lead his imperial army against a coalition of Egyptian, Phoenician, Philistine and Jewish enemies, and handily defeated them all? This, it seems to me, is the greatest might-have-been of all military history. This may be an odd thing to say about an engagement that never took place; yet Jerusalem’s preservation from attack by Sennacherib’s army shaped the subsequent history of the world far more profoundly than any military action I know of.”

This is a remarkable claim coming from a secular historian. What does he base it on? He establishes that without this reprieve, the state of Judah would have gone the way of Israel before it, with the destruction not only of the nation, but also of their confidence in God, as had happened in the north. As it was, the saving of Jerusalem was seen as a special act of God’s providence, and became the basis of a stronger faith that even withstood the later exile in Babylon, 100 years later. As he said, “The exiled people of Judah did not pine away. Instead they flourished by the waters of Babylon, and … created an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipated from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, the revised Jewish faith, tempered in exile, subsequently gave birth to Christianity and Islam, the two most powerful religions of our age, and of course retains its own, distinctive following around the world and especially in the contemporary state of Israel.

“None of this would have come to pass if the kingdom of Judah had disappeared in 701BC … Never before or since has so much depended on so few, believing so wholly in their one true god, and in such bold defiance of commonsense.”

Out of the mouth of a secular historian has come a tremendous statement regarding the purposes of Almighty God. The world as we know it would certainly be entirely different were it not for the preservation of Judah so long ago. May there be many more of God’s people today who ‘defy commonsense’ and trust in His providence.

– Ross Prout <>


This was an editorial written by Ross Prout as editor of New Life, Australia’s Christian weekly newspaper. <http://www.nlife.com.au>


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