Assyria had reached its full imperial extent, and somehow Hezekiah was able to turn away from his father Ahaz’s policies of accommodation in the areas of politics and religion. He grew up under the tutelage of the priests in the Jerusalem Temple.
They exerted profound influence over Hezekiah’s personal development and preparation for his career as king. His father was known as an accommodationist to foreign religious influences, so Hezekiah’s formation was against the grain of his father’s decisions.
His first phase of rule is marked by a decision to centralize worship in Jerusalem and renew religious observances of his people. He called his subjects back to the biblical covenant and then invited his coreligionists in Samaria to join him.
This invitation came in the form of festal letters sent out by the hands of able and learned representatives of his kingdom, reinstituting social and religious structures. The Assyrians, who had recently taken over Samaria and decimated its leadership, may have viewed this as a provocation. At any rate it was a reversal of the religious policies of his father.
One very bold act of Hezekiah’s was to destroy the bronze serpent, an object of popular veneration, with a long history going back to the time of Moses. Other acts were in concert: He destroyed shrines and altars that did not have to do with traditional beliefs.
His second phase of rule was political. Although he paid tribute to Assyria, he used it to buy time for himself so that he could refortify and reconsolidate Jerusalem and other Judaean cities. Archaeologists estimate that Hezekiah’s Jerusalem was fivefold the population of Solomon’s, and some suggest that many came from Samaria as political refugees.
Another major innovation was a way of supplying water to the acropolis of Jerusalem by way of the Siloam tunnel, recently discovered by modern excavators. New research has uncovered storage jars, imprinted with the king’s name, indicating that Hezekiah had a system for supplying his people with food in times of trouble.
Assyria took punitive action and rampaged across the country but miraculously did not capture Jerusalem. Records from the annals of Assyria tell a different story, saying that their general Senacherib ran a brilliant campaign, destroying 46 walled cities and taking 200,000 captives, walling up Hezekiah "like a caged bird".
In fact, the Bible says that the Assyrian general Senacherib beat a sudden retreat out of Jerusalem, though the night before he had harangued its citizens in their own language. The reason, according to the Bible, was a divine visitation of a plague against the besiegers.