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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 38

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 38 Hezekiah’s Illness And the Wondrous Sign From God Guaranteeing the Deliverance of Jerusalem.

This was prior to the visit of ambassadors from Merodach-baladan (Isaiah 39:1) and thus chronologically prior to chapters 36-37. The chronological transposition suits Isaiah’s purpose. He wanted to bring the threat of Babylon in juxtaposition with the second part of the book where Babylon is revealed as finally destroyed. But it would not be understandable in 2 Kings unless 2 Kings was influenced by Isaiah. Thus it is unlikely that 2 Kings can be primary. But it is also unlikely that 2 Kings is simply an expanded version of Isaiah 36-39. The explanation that fits all situations is that Isaiah also wrote a longer version of the events described here at the time that they happened, which was incorporated in 2 Kings (2 Chronicles 32:32), while also being summarised here.

Chapters 38-39 cap the first part of the book. They demonstrate that Yahweh did indeed give a wondrous sign of His willingness to deliver a member of the Davidic house when he was acting on behalf of his people. Ahaz had refused such an offer (compare Isaiah 7:11-14), but now He was giving the house of David another chance. Here Hezekiah was to see that the sun performed Yahweh’s bidding. But instead of this resulting in Hezekiah trusting in Yahweh, he turned rather to Babylon for help. This final failure to trust Yahweh completely, revealing even the good king Hezekiah and his descendants in a bad light as unsuitable to be the Coming King, resulted in his being cast off. The final verdict is that in fact his descendants in the Davidic house will not achieve glory, but will rather be led into humiliating captivity and prevented from bearing children. So all Isaiah’s exhortations to Judah/Israel and to Hezekiah had proved in vain, just as God had said they would at his inaugural call (Isaiah 6:9-10).

This then leads on into the second part of the book, where the emphasis is not on the coming Deliverer as a member of the Davidic house, but on the humble but glorious Servant (compare ‘David My Servant’ - Isaiah 37:35), although as also introducing the ‘sure mercies of David’ (Isaiah 55:3). He is still a greater David, descended from David, or the sure mercies would not apply, but not a crowned king in an earthly sense. Rather he is to be essentially Yahweh’s Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12).


Verses 1-8

Hezekiah’s Illness and The Great Sign (Isaiah 38:1-8).

The centrality and importance of this chapter must not be overlooked. It was God’s final attempt to woo over the reigning house of David to a life of obedience and trust. From this chapter onwards (along with its consequence in chapter 39) attention turns to the coming Servant of Yahweh Who will accomplish what the current house of David has proved itself incapable of doing.

Isaiah 38:1

‘In those days Hezekiah was sick unto death. And Isaiah, the prophet the son of Amoz, came to him and said, “Thus says Yahweh, Set your house in order for you will die and not live.” ’

‘In those days.’ An indeterminate phrase, the plural of ‘in that day’ Here it simply loosely connects what is to happen with the days of which Isaiah is speaking.

Hezekiah is declared to be very ill, indeed dying. He has a mortal illness. He was ‘sick unto death.’ And the prophet comes to him with confirmation from Yahweh. ‘Thus says Yahweh --- you will die.’ He must prepare for death and do all that is necessary for a king to do to ensure that affairs of state are passed to his successor smoothly. God is concerned for the future of his people.

This verse with its subsequent narrative is quite remarkable. It demonstrates that even the word of Yahweh can be reversed by repentance. For here is a prophetic word which will be so altered. What seems to be a situation which cannot be altered, is altered through prayer. The same was always true of God’s judgments (compare Jonah and Nineveh).

Isaiah 38:2-3

‘Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to Yahweh, and said, “Remember now O Yahweh I beg you, how I have walked before you in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept grievously.’

Outwardly Hezekiah’s concern would appear to be for the situation he found himself in personally. There is nothing sacrificially noble about his prayer. It is presented as outwardly purely selfish, as Isaiah 39:6-8 also reveals him to be. He was a good king, a godly king, and yet his perspective was limited and selfish. It was not stated to be the future of the kingdom or the purposes of God that concerned him. What concerned him was his own survival. How many there are of God’s people who are like this. When it comes down to it they are the godly selfish, (what a contradiction in terms, and yet how true of so many) and that is why they will achieve little. Outwardly it would appear that Hezekiah was successful, but he failed deeply in the purposes of God because his own ambitions took precedence. He presided over an almost catastrophe.

Nevertheless here part of his problem was also that he saw his premature death as resulting from sin. So he was not only crying out for life, he was crying out for forgiveness. One reason why he wanted to live was because in his eyes it would prove that he had become right with God. So his personal concern is to some extent understandable.

‘Turned his face to the wall.’ He could not get to the privacy of the Temple so this was second best. He wanted to be alone with God.

He summed up his life to God a little idealistically, and yet it was basically true. He had sought truth, he had sought to do what was right, he had sought to please God. He had lived a godly life. But we are intended also to see that his life was flawed, as we will learn in the next chapter. For he was unable to get away from his own selfish ambitions.

Yet having said all that we may well see hidden under his tears a concern for his people. While it was not prominent in the way his thoughts were expressed, he would know that in losing him his people were losing one who could strongly affect their future, for he had no grown sons. It may well be therefore that we are to see this thought as included in his prayer. And it may possibly be that God recognised his concern, which might be why the next verses speak of deliverance from Sennacherib’s hands.

‘And Hezekiah wept grievously.’ He did not want to die. He was fighting for life.

Given all this we can sum up Hezekiah’s prayer as indicating,

1) That he was horrified at the thought of premature death.

2) That this was at least partly because he saw it as indicating that God saw him as having sinned grievously so that he was being punished for it, and was thus unforgiven.

3) That underneath, unstated but known by God, was his concern for his people in the trying days that lay ahead of them, and in the face of the threat of invasion.

Yet we cannot hide from the fact that he did not articulate all these thoughts in his prayers. His prime concern is presented as being for his own deliverance. It was God Whose major concern was for His people.

Isaiah 38:4-6

‘Then came the word of Yahweh to Isaiah, saying, “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says Yahweh, the God of your father David, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. Look, I will add to your life fifteen years. And I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city.”’

Hezekiah knew that his behaviour in the religious and political field had angered the king of Assyria. He had purified the temple, removing the Assyrian gods; he had refused to pay tribute; he had had discussions with his neighbours (2 Kings 18:7). He could hardly doubt that this had been noted and that the detail was known to Sennacherib’s spies. Thus he could have had little doubt that he would at some stage be called to account. This must surely have been part of the reason for his distress, that he was dying when his country needed him.

That also explains why God sends to him and promises him, not only an extension of life, but also deliverance for him and Jerusalem out of Sennacherib’s hand. He promises that He will give Hezekiah a further fifteen years, and will successfully defend Jerusalem. This met his major concerns. But it is also clearly implied that it would not be because of his own worthiness but because of God’s promises to David - it is to be from ‘the God of your father David’.

The figure of ‘fifteen years’ is probably significant. Five is the number of covenant, and threefold five is covenant completeness. Thus it implies that God is acting within the covenant and for covenant reasons. Hezekiah will be living on borrowed time so that he can further the application of that covenant. (Fifteen and other multiples of five were a regular measurement in the Tabernacle. Compare also the twofold ‘five words’ of the commandments, and the five books of the Law and of the Psalms, all aspects of the covenant).

By these promises God is revealed as the giver of life and as the Great Defender of His people, and Hezekiah as the great beneficiary. Surely now he will be dedicated to Yahweh with all his heart and lean wholly on Him. And in order to seek to ensure this, God in His graciousness goes further. He adds to this an even greater wonder.

Isaiah 38:7

“And this will be the sign to you from Yahweh, that Yahweh will do this thing that he has spoken. Behold, I will cause the shadow on the steps, which has gone down on the steps of Ahaz with the sun, to return backward ten steps.” So the sun returned ten steps on the steps on which it had gone down.’

It is futile to seek to speculate on how this happened apart from the fact that we know that it was Yahweh’s doing. The steps of Ahaz are not said to be a sundial, although it is often assumed by commentators. They are rather chosen here as a reminder of the person of Ahaz, the one who refused God’s sign, the one who would not listen to Yahweh. They are possibly the steps that had led up to Ahaz’s house of idolatry (2 Kings 23:12). But as that may have been designed for the worship of the sun god, it may well be that the steps had also been designed to follow the sun’s shadow, thus linking it with the passing of time. But the point is that what faithless Ahaz set up was to be used as the conveyor of a sign from God to his successor who was now being given the same great opportunity as he had had, the opportunity to see God producing a miracle enabling him to trust in God alone and reject all earthly support.

The sign will be indicated by the movement of the shadow caused by the sun on these steps. The advancing shadow will retreat ten steps. Those ten steps which had come into the shade will become once more open to the sun. This was too great a degree of change to be mistakable. Only an act of God could produce this phenomenon. And it was clearly witnessed, probably by Isaiah himself, for he asserts that it happened.

It is possible that the retreating of the shadow was intended to be an indication that God would remove the shadow which was hanging over Hezekiah, and the shadow which was hanging over Jerusalem, the ten indicating covenant witness and certainty (twice five). It was certainly in order to indicate that the Creator could do whatever He would on the earth. And if the shadow of the sun could be controlled how much more Sennacherib, and the ‘host of heaven’ (2 Kings 17:16; 2 Kings 21:3-5) whom he worshipped.

It may also indicate that God was giving the house of David a second chance. Time was, as it were retreating, thus eliminating the failure of Ahaz.

(How God did it is not a question we can look at scientifically for we do not have all the facts. We are not told that the phenomenon achieved a permanent change in the position of the sun. Nor indeed is the sun said to have been observed as moving. It was the shadow caused by the sun that was observed as moving, and that only on the steps of Ahaz. We can only look on and wonder, as they no doubt did).

The greater detail in 2 Kings at this point is against 2 Kings being just an expansion of Isaiah here, unless they had further material from a more detailed written record of Isaiah to go on. Perhaps there was an original detailed record from which he extracted what is written here, selecting the salient points for what he wanted to convey. In 2 Kings the great sign is more closely related to Hezekiah’s healing.

The significance of all this must not be lost. God’s purpose in Hezekiah’s illness was to establish his faith and to give him the opportunity of reversing what Ahaz had done in bringing about the rejection of the earthly house of David. In the same way as the shadow of the sun had reversed, God could reverse that rejection. Indeed He gave him multiple evidence that he would if only Hezekiah would believe. He demonstrated that He had control over life and death, and over the movements and effects of the sun. And He guaranteed the deliverance of Jerusalem by His own hand. What more could He do? We are at the ultimate climax. Surely this Davidic king will now fully do His will? Chapter 39 will be the anti-climax, and will give a negative answer.


Verses 9-20

Hezekiah’s Psalm of Praise (Isaiah 38:9-20).

Isaiah 38:9

‘The writing of Hezekiah the king of Judah when he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness.’

This was clearly originally a record on its own, written by Hezekiah. It was then incorporated by the compilers into the book. It stresses that it was Hezekiah who wrote it down. It was his purpose that it be sung in the Temple (Isaiah 38:20), and was in gratitude for his deliverance from death.

Isaiah 38:10-12

‘I said, in the noontide of my days,

I will go through the gates of Sheol,

I am deprived of the residue of my years.

I said I will not see Yahweh,

Yah in the land of the living,

I will look on man no more,

Among the inhabitants of cessation.

My period of life is removed,

And is carried away from me like a shepherd’s tent,

I have rolled up my life like a weaver.

He will cut me off from the loom.’

In the first part of the Psalm Hezekiah picturesquely describes his sense that, for him, life is over, and bemoans the fact that he is to be cut off without reaching old age. He was concerned that he would go through the gates of the grave-like world of the dead while still not old, deprived of part of his allotted years; that he would no longer be able to see the activity of God among living people; that he would no longer be able to enjoy life, and watch man about his activities, for he himself would be among the inhabitants of that world where all such activities have ceased.

He sees his life as temporary, as being as transient as the pitching and striking of a shepherd’s tent, and reluctantly consigns himself to death, as someone who would be cut off like a piece of cloth would be cut off from the larger piece on the loom and rolled up. He has woven his life and now it has been prematurely cut off. He is totally despondent.

‘He will cut me off from the loom.’ Literally, ‘from the thrum.’ The second figure is that of a web completed and removed by the weaver from the loom. The thrum is the ends of the threads by which the web is fastened to the beam.

Isaiah 38:12-14

‘I thought over things until morning. Like a lion he breaks all my bones.

From day even until night, will you make an end of me.’

Like a swallow or a crane so did I chatter on,

I mourned as a dove, my eyes fail to look upward.

O Yahweh, I am oppressed. You be my surety.

He then recognises the finality of death, and feels that his life is being wrenched from him. He feels that he will be like the prey of a lion, leaped upon and crunched to pieces almost immediately. He will no more experience day and night, for God will have made an end of him. That is why he does nothing but can only chatter on, uselessly and nervously, like the birds, mourning like a dove with downcast eyes. But then he takes hold of himself and calls on Yahweh to act as his surety, the One Who stands up for him, and all is then changed.

Isaiah 38:15

‘What shall I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done it,

I will go carefully all my years, because of the bitterness of my soul.’

God has spoken to him and answered him directly by His action. Thus he is not to die, but will have many years ahead (‘all my years’). But he will treasure them and use them carefully because of the bitterness of what he has endured. He has learned through suffering to make the most of life, walking in obedience to God’s ways.

Isaiah 38:16

‘O Lord, by these things men live, and wholly in them is the life of my spirit,

So do you make me recover, and make me live.’

‘These things’ are the bitter experiences he has gone through, learning the lessons of life. It is such things as these that tend to make men seek and find life, and his own spirit has now been inspired by them. Compare Deuteronomy 8:3 where we read, ‘And He humbled you and made you suffer hunger, -- that He might make you to know that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God does man live.’ Such suffering, says the writer, is in the end what makes men seek true life through the word of God. And so, having experienced suffering, he prays that God might now make him recover so that he can live that life in His will.

Isaiah 38:17

‘Behold it was for my welfare (peace) that I had great bitterness,

But you have in love for my soul, delivered it from the pit of corruption.

For you have cast all my sins behind your back.’

He acknowledges that it was for his own good that he has gone through these experiences. He has learned from them the importance of life (‘I will go carefully’ - Isaiah 38:15). But he also rejoices because he now knows that God has in love for him cancelled out the effect of his sin, the sin which would have produced premature death, and He has done it by casting his sins behind His back. That is why he has been allowed to live. That is why God has delivered him from the pit where he would have become a rotting corpse. He recognises that had it not been for the suffering he had undergone he would never have experienced this forgiveness so fully. So overall he acknowledges that the experience has been good.

Israel at its best recognised clearly the connection between sin and death as it is described here. The man who sinned would die (Ezekiel 18:4). Thus death resulted from sin, and premature death was a pointer to sin. The corollary was that death could be delayed by true repentance and looking to God, and finding forgiveness for sins committed. This was their simple faith. What lay beyond they did not know, unless they had read Isaiah’s earlier revelations.

Isaiah 38:18-19

‘For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot celebrate you,

Those who go down into the pit cannot hope for your truth.

The living, the living, he will praise you as I do this day,

The father to the children will make known your truth.

The idea is that once a man has died, it is too late for him, either to seek to praise God, or to celebrate Him. It is too late to look for truth. That is only available to the living. And it is the living who will praise God as Hezekiah was doing this very day, it is the living who teach and pass on truth. The father teaching the children was the main way in Israel of them growing up in the truth about Yahweh and His covenant (Deuteronomy 11:19). So death is to be avoided if at all possible, and it is good that Yahweh is restoring him to life.

Hezekiah is not commenting on the afterlife as we know of it. He is speaking of the certainties that he knew of. What he says positively is true. What lay on the other side he did not surmise. Indeed, as far as he was aware there was nothingness, a shadowy world of the grave. Thus a man should seek to live by following the word of Yahweh.

Isaiah 38:20

Yahweh is ready to save me,

Therefore will we sing with stringed instruments,

All the days of our life in the house of Yahweh.’

As a result of Hezekiah’s experience he now knows that each man can know that God is ready to save him, if he turns to Him, as Hezekiah, had done in repentance. Each can say, ‘Yahweh is ready to save me.’ That is why they come to the house of Yahweh and sing with stringed instruments all their days.

This ending reveals that Hezekiah expected his Psalm to be used in worship in the Temple. It was his public testimony to God. Alternatively it may have been added once the Psalm was presented to the Temple for such use.


Verse 21-22

Final Conclusions (Isaiah 38:21-22).

It would be a mistake to see these as comments as words casually added on with no real significance, and to pass over them too quickly. The first states how his healing was brought about, by a laying of a poultice on his eruption of the flesh, bringing out that it was indeed God Who had restored him. The second was even more significant, for it leads on into what follows and stresses that it is to be seen in the light of the fact that Hezekiah had asked for and received a God-given miraculous sign.

At first sight both seem to be equally pious comments. Isaiah confident that Yahweh would heal him, Hezekiah eager to go up to the house of Yahweh. But what a difference in attitude. One was eager that God’s power might be revealed, the other simply concerned about the certainty of his own healing.

Isaiah 38:21

‘Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a cake of figs and lay it for a plaster on the boil, and he will recover.’

Note that Isaiah’s work of healing is not described as though it was the most important aspect of the account. It almost has the appearance of an afterthought. For the concentration of the passage is not on the healing but on the significance of Hezekiah’s experience. But it is an important afterthought. It is brought in to emphasise that the healing was indeed genuinely of God through His prophet.

The boil and the seriousness of the illness possibly indicate some kind of plague illness. The method of using a poultice to draw the boil was clearly known. And it equally clearly worked. If it was a miracle no emphasis is laid on the fact that it was so. The emphasis is rather on the fact that it was God’s doing. Once the boil was drawn healing could go on apace. But Hezekiah certainly saw it as a miracle of forgiveness and healing. A similar kind of plaster (of dried raisins) for use on horses is witnessed to in a Ugaritic text.

Isaiah 38:22

‘Hezekiah had also said, “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of Yahweh?” ’

Hezekiah’s main concern was whether the healing would occur as quickly as Yahweh had promised (1 Kings 20:28). This note is added in order to prepare for the following verses. ‘The sign’ here must be the one described in Isaiah 38:7, for it is the only one mentioned in the passage. Here in Isaiah that sign was stated as having a twofold purpose, ‘Look,’ had promised Yahweh, ‘I will add to your life fifteen years, and I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city. And this will be the sign to you from Yahweh, that Yahweh will do this thing that He has spoken’ (Isaiah 38:5-6). Thus the sign was intended to point both to his healing and the certainty of the coming miraculous deliverance.

But 1 Kings 20:28 explains that the sign that was given to Hezekiah had in fact been asked for by him as evidence that he would be healed so that he could go up to the house of Yahweh within three days. And it is made clear here that that is his main concern, his own healing, and progression from it. While God had wanted it also to be the greater sign of His power to deliver and His promise of future deliverance (Isaiah 38:6), Hezekiah only thought in terms of his own healing. So Hezekiah, instead of being taken up with, and excited about, the promise of future deliverance, expresses concern lest he be unable to go up to the house of Yahweh on the third day. This again brings out Hezekiah’s selfish concentration on his own need rather than on his people’s needs. It sounded pious enough, but it was proof of his mediocrity.

No doubt he also saw himself as being restrained from going up to the house of Yahweh because the eruption rendered him unclean (see Leviticus 13:18), and it suggests that he longed to do so as soon as appropriate. He wanted to be ‘clean’ again. Such an ambition was not to be despised. It was good that he wanted to go up to the house of Yahweh. But why did he want to do it? Are we to see this as because he longed to carry out his intercessory prayer as the priest after the order of Melchizedek? (compare Isaiah 37:1; Isaiah 37:14). But that was no longer necessary. The sign had been God’s guarantee of deliverance. Or are we to see it as in order that he might give thanks for his recovery? That he saw it as putting the cap on any delay in his recovery? The context suggests the latter.

In other words his mind was concentrated on the wrong thing. While God had tried to direct his thoughts to the great deliverance, all Hezekiah could think of was his own restoration. There could be no greater contrast than that between this current representative of the house of David, whose only desire was to survive and to whom the coming deliverance was secondary, and the coming Servant whom Isaiah will shortly describe, Whose whole concern will be to do the will of God and Whose whole attention will be on the final deliverance, even though He would have to face death in order to bring it about (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12). The Hezekiah revealed here fits well with the Hezekiah revealed in Isaiah 39:8.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 38:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-38.html. 2013.

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