At first sight Isaiah’s bitter poem about the downfall of the king of Babylon doesn’t appear to have much resonance with us. It seems to be describing long ago events in a far away place. Until we realise that already, by the time of Isaiah himself, the poem is being recycled.
It originally referred to the Assyrian King Sargon II, a man with a terrifying reputation who nonetheless managed to get himself killed while on campaign in a remote part of his empire. Sargon had just celebrated the pinnacle of his many achievements by completing a brand new capital city, but he didn’t get to enjoy it. Within months his army was defeated, in an apparently insignificant provincial rebellion. The fighting was so fierce that the body of the king couldn’t be recovered and had to be abandoned on the field of battle. Legend said that it couldn’t even be found by his enemies and had been left to rot or get eaten by dogs and wild animals.
To have suffered such an inglorious fate it was assumed that Sargon must have committed a terrible sin that had offended Assyria’s gods. The humiliation was felt so keenly back in Assyria that no monument was ever built to his memory and his name was simply erased from the historical record by his own son.
And if that’s how his own son felt about him, you can imagine what the people of Israel thought. Sargon had destroyed their kingdom and marched a lot of their people into exile in what was certainly an act of cultural genocide, where they were settled in some barren out of the way place, and it may have been an act of physical genocide too because they disappear from history.
One of Israel’s poets, or perhaps a poet from the southern kingdom of Judah where the cousins of the people of Israel lived, couldn’t wait to make fun of Sargon’s fate. ‘That cruel monster is done for!’ gloats the writer. ‘He won’t attack us again. Now the people of the world are celebrating with joyful songs.’ Even the trees have had a reprieve. No one is chopping them down for firewood for an invading army or to make siege engines.
The poet imagines what sort of reception must have awaited Sargon when he went down to the world of the dead. With great excitement the people whose nations he brought down gather round him. ‘Are you the man who made the world tremble and shook up kingdoms? Now you are just as weak as any of us! Your pride and your music have ended here,’ they scoff, ‘In the world of the dead.’
Sargon had aimed at an eternal throne above the highest stars alongside his gods but, whereas kings are normally buried in glorious tombs, he has ended up instead lying unburied, just another dead body killed in battle, lying underfoot like a broken branch. This is poetic justice for someone who’d captured countless cities, turned whole countries into deserts, murdered their people and refused to let his prisoners go home.
But Sargon had been long dead by the time Isaiah took up the same poem and used it against an unnamed King of Babylon. Although it had been intended as a barb against Sargon II and Assyria, the sentiments are timeless really. They express how the little people of the world often feel about the high and mighty, the ruthless schemers, the movers and shakers.
We only have to think about how people responded, at least initially, to the fall of Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, or to the death of Osama Bin Laden, or how they are reacting now to the reconquest of the short-lived Islamic caliphate set up by ISIS. Recently young men brandishing machine guns posed alongside a British television reporter on the very spot where Djihadi John once executed British and American prisoners, the place where ISIS had promised that Armageddon - the final battle between good and evil - would be won by them. It was the symbolic equivalent, for a television audience, of Isaiah’s poem.
Our politics are conducted on a different plane, but there’s still plenty of room for ruthless cut and thrust. Witness the meteoric rise and fall of the alliance between Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or the public celebrations in Thurnscoe when Margaret Thatcher died. People of different political persuasions still celebrate the look of defeat on the faces of Michael Portillo and Ed Balls when they lost their seats in Parliament. But instead of going down deep into the world of the dead they went deep into the world of entertainment. Michael Portillo was condemned to making all the great railway journeys of the world until he runs out of steam, and Ed Balls to being the butt of the judges’ jokes on Strictly Come Dancing.
In the weeks ahead, if Theresa May doesn’t win the expected landslide, or Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t stave off the annihilation of the Labour Party, or Nicola Sturgeon sees her grip on Scotland starting to slide, their fall could be just as sudden and precipitous, if not so deadly, as the fall of Sargon II. After all, in under a year David Cameron has gone from running a country to planning and installing a luxury garden shed - an imitation shepherd’s lambing hut on wheels - where he can sit and write his memoirs in peace and quiet.
We need to believe that it doesn’t have to be like this. People don’t have to either win or lose. There is an alternative way. The way of gentleness and compassion, the way of truth and sincerity, the way of justice and peace, the way of reconciliation. And we have to believe this because it’s the way of Jesus.
In his letter to the church at Philippi St Paul encourages his readers to ‘think the same way that Christ Jesus thought.’ Unlike Sargon he did not just aspire to be like a god, he ‘truly was God. But he didn’t try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, ...like one of us.’ He was humble not haughty, obedient not proud, willing even to die on a cross.
Jesus modelled a pattern of leadership where the leader aims to serve and help the people that he or she leads, not to exploit, or mislead and deceive them, or rule the roost over them. And precisely because of that God has given him the highest place. Whereas Sargon was erased from history, at least for a time, the name of Jesus will always be honoured above all others. ‘So at the name of Jesus every knee will bow down.’ Whereas the dead make fun of Sargon in Isaiah’s poem, even the dead - those ‘under the earth’ - will acknowledge the true lordship of Jesus.
The bitterness and vengefulness with which the poem about Sargon ends mean that, inevitably, the outbreak of peace which the poem celebrates is likely to be shortlived. The crucifixion of Jesus appears at first sight like a similarly humiliating and catastrophic end to the ignominious fate that was suffered by Sargon, but Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the world of the dead. It ends in resurrection, and with the throne above the highest stars alongside God, which Sargon aspired to but was denied.As followers of Jesus we’re called to model the same spirit of humility, gentleness, collaboration and compassion which made him glorious. Politics and leadership in general is not a Game of Thrones, a chance to show how clever and manipulative we can be. Leadership, whether in the wider community, or in the church, or at work, or at home, is an opportunity to serve others and together seek the common good. We shouldn’t be looking for strong leaders, we should be looking for right-minded leaders, and leaders whose aim is to serve.