The False Dilemma

A false dilemma is a logical fallacy in which a limited number of options are offered without consideration to the full range of possible options. Generally, it is seen in “either or” propositions, whereby the options are either “this” or “that.”

We have a good opportunity to see just this fallacy in the story of Hezekiah. Sennacherib is barnstorming through Judah – according to his own annals, he conquered 46 fortified cities – and is demanding that Hezekiah submit or be forced into submission.

Given the clear display of Assyria’s military might, and their obvious ability to put down those who resist them, the threat of defeat appears very real, possibly undeniable.

Now, let’s focus in on the point: Sennacherib sent his military field leaders to Jerusalem to try to secure a peaceful surrender of the capital. A common military tactic is to try to unseat the enemy leadership by creating a local resistance, and the Assyrians employed the false dilemma to do just that.

The way this unfolds is very interesting. The Assyrians show up and begin speaking their threats in Hebrew, in the hearing of all who are nearby, specifically targeting the average “man in the street,” or in this case, the average man on the wall. Hezekiah’s representatives ask the Assyrians to speak in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. But the Assyrians are clever and suggest that they have been sent not only to speak to the leadership, but also to the men on the wall because they, like the leadership “will have to eat their own filth and drink their own urine (2 Kings 18:27).”

This is the first option of the “either or” offer: Resistance will lead only to eating their own filth and drinking their own urine.” In other words, unspeakable hardship and disaster awaits those who don’t submit.

The second option of the “either or” offer is this: If Jerusalem willingly submits everyone will eat from his own vine and fig tree and drink water from his own cistern, UNTIL they are sent to a land similar to Jerusalem. They should “choose life and not death!” the Assyrians implore.

See that? Choose destruction OR surrender! Choose to eat your own filth and drink your own urine OR eat from your own garden and drink from you own well! Choose life OR death!

What is the underlying assumption in the options offered? Clearly, the Assyrians assume they can, without risk of failure, conquer Jerusalem. And, I suppose if one were to do a man to man, or strength to strength comparison, the Assyrians are probably right: the options are rather bleak.

However, Hezekiah isn’t trusting in his might versus the might of the Assyrians. Hezekiah is hoping in the strength of the LORD. And that is exactly what makes the Assyrians’ proposal a false dilemma. They are not considering a third option: the strength and sovereignty of the LORD.

I’ve been in so many counseling situations where the counselees are, because of the dire appearance of their situation, trapped in a false dilemma. They can only see “either or” situations, and so often, both options are bad. It’s just that one option looks less bad than the other. And in many, if not most of those situations the consideration of the LORD’S strength and sovereignty isn’t present.

And to take this a step farther: Often when the issue of “where’s God in all of this” is raised, those who feel so trapped will respond something like, “I don’t know where He fits in, but I can see two options here, and one is better than the other.” But none of us has a magic looking glass through which we can see the actual outcome of choosing either option. And that makes the question of “why not find out how/where God fits into your situation and follow Him” all the more relevant.

This is how the same point is illustrated in the situation of Hezekiah and his people: It is impossible to estimate the actual end result of the exception clause in the second part of the dilemma: “UNTIL I come and take you to a land like your own…” I’m specifically asking: If the residents of Jerusalem accept the “buyout option” and surrender to the Assyrians, what will life actually be like once they are transferred to Assyria or wherever? Will life be like it is currently? Will God see their surrender as a lack of faith and give them greater hardship to build their faith? Clearly, we can’t offer definitive answers, but these are things that should be considered when facing a dilemma such as the Assyrians were offering. Why not simply trust the LORD from the outset?

Hezekiah offers us an example of how to respond when we find ourselves in delimmas that appear to only offer disaster or defeat. How did he respond? We’ll find out as we continue to look at the life of Hezekiah.

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