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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 38

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter has the account of the fatal illness survived by Hezekiah and of God’s 15-year extension of his life, and also the record of the Psalm which Hezekiah wrote in commemoration and thanksgiving for the event.

Verse 1

“In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said unto him; set thy house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live.”

“In those days” does not fix the date of Hezekiah’s illness; and, consequently, there are diverse opinions as to when this event occurred. Kelley pointed out that it “is very difficult”(F1) to fix the date, but thought it might be around 705 B.C. Hailey gave the date as “701 B.C.”(F2) Rawlinson noted that, “The illness of Hezekiah is fixed by Isaiah 38:5 here and 2 Kings 20:6 to the fourteenth year of his reign, or B.C. 714.”(F3) Adam Clarke listed 713 B.C. in the margin of his commentary on this verse;(F4) and Cheyne wrote that, “Since, according to 2 Kings 18:2, Hezekiah reigned 29 years, his illness must have occurred in his fourteenth year, and must have synchronized, or nearly so, with the invasion of Sargon.”(F5)

There is too much uncertainty as to when the beginning and ending of the reigns were calculated for some of the kings mentioned in Isaiah to allow dogmatic conclusions to carry very much weight. There is also the possibility mentioned by several that God actually extended Hezekiah’s life somewhat longer than the fifteen years promised here. There is also the question of the overlapping of reigns in certain cases. See the Introduction. Another possibility, already mentioned earlier is that Hezekiah calculated the latter part of his reign, after the extension of his life, as a “Second Reign.” We do not pretend to have an adequate solution of this problem.

Verses 2-3

“Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto Jehovah, and said, O Jehovah, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.”

Hezekiah’s turning his face to the wall, “Resembles that of Ahab (1 Kings 21:4); but the spirit is wholly different.”(F6) Ahab turned away to the wall for a sullen pout; but Hezekiah did it for privacy and to collect his thoughts for the prayer.

Josephus tells us that the reason for Hezekiah’s bitter weeping was due to the “Knowledge that he was childless and the thought of his leaving the kingdom without a son to succeed him. So the king was in great dread, and in terrible agony at this calamity.”(F7)

Jamieson commented, “How often do our wishes when gratified prove curses”!(F8) Hezekiah lived to have a son, Manasseh, (2 Kings 21:1), by all standards the most wicked and evil of all the kings of Judah, whose reign ended with the overthrow of the kingdom and the deportation of the people to Babylon.

Verses 4-6

“Then came the word of Jehovah unto Isaiah, saying, Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years. And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city.”

The parallel account in 2 Kings 20:4 reveals that Isaiah left Hezekiah and was on the way to departing from the palace, being as far as the middle court, when the Word of God came to Isaiah again, instructing him to reveal that the Lord had heard his prayers and was extending his life by some fifteen years. “So swiftly does God answer the prayer of faith!”(F9) From this we may conclude that God approves of our prayers for health, for life and for strength.

As Douglas commented, this great prayer of Isaiah, “May be ranked with Abraham’s intercession for Sodom, with Elijah’s prayer for rain, and with the Syrophoenician’s pleading with the Saviour for her daughter.”(F10)

Notice that the disease that threatened Hezekiah was a fatal malady; yet Hezekiah did not fail to pray. We believe that Christians today, due to the increase of knowledge, appear to settle such matters without regard to God, much in the same manner that a deacon in Bakersfield, California, once prayed for a patient diagnosed as being terminally ill with cancer, praying, in substance, as follows: “God, we know there’s nothing you can do for him, but if possible help him to be easy in his last days!” To us, such a prayer approaches blasphemy. This writer has definite knowledge of a man from Moundsville, West Virginia, who was diagnosed as having “inoperable cancer of the trachea” by seven of the leading surgeons in Washington, D.C., whose principal physician was Dr. James Jerry McFarland, a noted surgeon in that city. That man was given a maximum life expectancy of six months, but eight years later he walked into Dr. McFarland’s office completely whole. He said that God healed him. This report, incidentally was reported in the American Medical Journal (approximately 1955).

As Jamieson correctly commented: “At this point, Isaiah 38:21-22 would normally have appeared in the narrative; but Isaiah placed them later in order not to interrupt the message of God.”(F11)

Verses 7-8

“And this shall be the sign unto thee from Jehovah, that Jehovah will do this thing that he hath spoken: behold, I will cause the shadow on the steps, which is gone down on the dial of Ahaz with the sun, to return backward ten steps. So the sun returned ten steps on the dial whereon it was gone down.”

The account in 2 Kings mentions that it was by the specific request of Hezekiah that this sign was given in preference to a sign in which the shadow on the dial would have advanced ten steps. We receive this as an astounding miracle, wrought by the power of God himself, a miracle that is in every sense equal to that of Beth-horon (Joshua 10:12-15). All that we wrote in connection with that miracle is also applicable here. See my commentary on Joshua, pp, 110-113.

We are not interested in the learned dissertations by men explaining `why they cannot believe this.’ Since when did unbelief ever need an explanation? Christ has already explained it. “Men have loved darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). As to `how’ God performed this wonder, no man may claim to know. Given the fact that it was God who intervened here, where is there any problem? Is anything too hard for God?

We fully agree with Douglas on this. He said, “The attempts to explain the going back of the shadow by a parhelion (mock sun), or by an eclipse, or refraction have been utterly unsuccessful. Those who do not reject the narrative as a falsehood, nor explain it as a conjurer’s trick, must accept it as a miracle.”(F12)

Verse 9

“The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered from his sickness.”

As Cheyne said, “There is nothing to deny the authenicity of this psalm of Hezekiah, as Dillman and Delitzsch, among our latest great critics, agree.”(F13) The same author also called the psalm recorded here, “a peculiarly sweet and plaintive specimen of Hebrew psalmody.”

After recovering from his sickness, Hezekiah remembered his emotions and feelings as he lay upon what he believed would be his death-bed and incorporated them into the following song.

Verses 10-12

“I said, In the noontide of my days, I shall go into the gates of Sheol; I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see Jehovah, even Jehovah in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world. My dwelling is removed, and is carried away from me as a shepherd’s tent; I have rolled up, like a weaver, my life; he will cut me off from the loom: From day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.”

This is the first of four stanzas that are thought to be discernible in this little psalm. “In the first two, the king is looking forward to death, and the thought is mournful; but in the last two he has received the promise of recovery, and he pours out his thanksgiving.”(F14) It is of interest that the metaphors used here, namely, that of the removal of a shepherd’s tent, and that of being cut out of the loom and folded up, both carry the thought that death is not the end of everything. “The idea here is that his dwelling would be transferred from one place to another. He would continue to exist, but in another place, just as the shepherd would remove his tent from one place to another, but still live in it.”(F15)

Verses 13-14

“I quieted my self until morning; as a lion, so he breaketh all my bones: From day even to night wilt thou make an end of me. Like a swallow or a crane, so did I chatter; I did moan as a dove; mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed, be thou my surety?”

The big thing here is that even in the gates of death, Hezekiah asked that God would be his surety. The chattering and the moaning may refer to the incoherent speech of those who are delirious and the groans of those violently ill.

Verses 15-17

“What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, by these things do men live; And wholly therein is the life of my spirit: Wherefore recover thou me, and make me to live. Behold, it was for my peace that I had great bitterness: But thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption; For thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.”

The thought here is not too clear, other than the change of attitude. God has now assured Hezekiah of extended life, and in gratitude, and penitence he confesses his sins and acknowledges that God “in love” has rescued him. Kidner notes that, “The awkwardness of the Hebrew here suggests a damaged text, on which the ancient versions and the scrolls have no unanimity.”(F16)

The mention of God’s putting Hezekiah’s sins behind his back, does not mean that God forgave them, but that for the time present he was “passing over” them as in Romans 3:25.

Verses 18-20

“For Sheol cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: They that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: The father to the children shall make known thy truth. Jehovah is ready to save me. Therefore we will sing my songs with stringed instruments All the days of our life in the house of Jehovah.”

The theme here is rejoicing over the recovery which came from the special blessing of the Lord. The language used in portions of this little hymn suggests that it was used in the temple services, or at least, that Hezekiah might have composed it with such a usage in view.

The final two verses here have the same information that appears in the narrative in 2 Kings, only there, it appears in a different sequence. We have already noted that Isaiah’s probable reason for this different arrangement was that of avoiding an interruption of the message of God. We like Douglas’ comment on this. he wrote:

“Ingenious scholars, whose aim is to present us with the text as they think Isaiah should have written it, are pretty well agreed that there is a dislocation here, and that these last two verses ought to have come earlier, perhaps between Isaiah 38:6-7; and they compare the order in the book of Kings.”(F17)

It has been almost a century since Douglas wrote this; but he here pointed squarely to the great passion of countless critical commentators of our own times, whose comments are much preoccupied with telling us what they believe the prophet thought, or what he meant. We care absolutely nothing for any of that kind of “guessing” on the part of men who have absolutely nothing on earth to go by except their own imaginations. The text is what God has given us; if we learn anything at all from the Bible, it must be found in the text, not in the imaginations of men who, at their very best are ignorant, and who at the worst are servants of Satan himself.

There is no reason whatever for denying that Isaiah wrote both accounts, the one in 2 Kings, and the one here. Why should Isaiah have consulted any other person, or writing, except himself and his own notes on what happened. Was he not the one who prescribed the poultice of figs?

Verses 21-22

“Now Isaiah had said, Let them take a cake of figs, and lay it for a plaster upon the boil, and he shall recover. Hezekiah also had said, What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of Jehovah?”

This injection of some pertinent fact into a narrative subsequently to its actual chronological occurrence is a typical feature of the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation. As an example, in Jonah, after the men cast lots and charged him with being the cause of the danger they were in, learned that Jonah was a follower of Jehovah; “Then, the men were exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, What is this that thou hast done? For the men knew that he was fleeing from Jehovah, because he had told them” (Jonah 1:10). Thus there appears here a fact that the mariners had learned at the time of Jonah’s taking passage on the ship of Tarshish.

The fact that dried figs were used in the medical practice of the ancients is confirmed by both Roman historians, Pliny, and Celsus.(F18) The significance is that natural means were frequently utilized by the Lord in the performance of those wonders with which the Bible is filled.

The additional information provided in these last two verses was summarized thus by Dummelow: “The remedy for the king’s disease was suggested by Isaiah, and the sign was given at the king’s request.”(F19)

In this connection, even during the charismatic age of the church when elders endowed with the gift of healing, prayed for the sick, they also anointed the sufferer with oil, as in James 5:13-15.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 38". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-38.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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