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2. The Babylonian threat chs. 38-39
The events in these chapters evidently predate those in chapters 36-37 by a few months (cf. Isaiah 38:1; Isaiah 38:6). Isaiah apparently placed them here, out of chronological order, to make them a historical prologue to chapters 40-66. This section opens with Hezekiah contemplating death (Isaiah 38:1 a) and ends with him contemplating life (Isaiah 39:8). In between, Isaiah delivered two messages to the king (Isaiah 38:1-7; Isaiah 39:3-7). Hezekiah’s dedication (Isaiah 38:8-22) followed the prophet’s first message, and his defection (Isaiah 39:1-2) precipitated the second message. Thus the structure of these two chapters is chiastic. [Note: Motyer, p. 290.]
The phrase "In those days" evidently identifies the event in Hezekiah’s reign just referred to in chapters 36 and 37, namely: the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib (cf. Isaiah 39:1). Isaiah 38:6 clarifies that Hezekiah became mortally ill before God delivered Jerusalem from Sennacherib. Consequently the events of chapters 38 and 39 must predate those of chapters 36 and 37. Since the Lord added 15 years to Hezekiah’s life (Isaiah 38:5), and since Hezekiah died about 686 B.C., [Note: Thiele, A Chronology . . ., p. 75.] the time when he became mortally ill was evidently early in 701 B.C.
The formal introduction of the prophet signals a new section of the book. Isaiah visited the king with a message from the Lord-to set his domestic affairs in order, because he would not recover from his illness but die (cf. 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 2:1-9). Sometimes what God announced through His prophets seemed inevitable, but when His people prayed it became negotiable (cf. Genesis 32:26; Exodus 32:7-14; James 4:2).
Hezekiah’s illness 38:1-8
Perhaps Hezekiah turned his face to the wall to concentrate or to make his prayer private. Perhaps he felt completely devastated and withdrew into himself (cf. 1 Kings 21:4). He requested God’s mercy in the form of lengthened life, though he did not voice the request in so many words. He based his appeal on his godly walk before God and his wholehearted devotion to God. Hezekiah was a good king who reformed his nation spiritually (cf. 2 Chronicles 29-31). He appealed for longer life on the basis of his godliness, because God promised to bless the godly who lived under the Old Covenant with long life (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:33; Deuteronomy 7:12-15; Deuteronomy 30:16). His bitter tears showed the depth of his sorrow. He would apparently die without an heir to the throne, in the full strength of his manhood, and with his nation in an unsettled state.
God sent His answer to Hezekiah’s prayer back to him through Isaiah (cf. 2 Kings 20:4). The Lord identified Himself as the God of David, his forefather. Perhaps the reference to David helped Hezekiah remember God’s promises to David about the perpetuity of his dynasty (2 Samuel 7). This reminded the king that God would remain faithful and care for His people.
God had noted Hezekiah’s prayer and his tears, and they had touched Him. The Lord graciously promised him 15 more years of life. Long life was a blessing that God had promised the godly under the Old Covenant, so His grace was in harmony with His promises.
The Lord furthermore promised unconditionally to deliver Hezekiah and Jerusalem from the king of Assyria. This deliverance happened later in 701 B.C. (chs. 36-37).
"The close association of Hezekiah’s recovery with the city’s deliverance suggests that the king epitomizes the city. Both Hezekiah and Jerusalem came to the threshold of death, but both were given a new lease on life because of the king’s faithful deeds." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 91.]
Isaiah 38:21-22 fit chronologically at this place in the narrative.
The Lord also graciously gave Hezekiah a sign that He would indeed do what He had promised, in response to Hezekiah’s request for a sign (Isaiah 38:22; 2 Kings 20:8).
The stairway of Ahaz was evidently an exterior stairway that led to his upper room on the roof of the palace, where Ahaz had erected altars (2 Kings 23:12). This stairway was probably not built as a sundial, but it served that purpose as the sun cast its shadow on more or fewer steps depending on the time of day. That stairway may have been constructed as a sundial, or a different stairway constructed for that purpose could be in view. One writer believed it was an obelisk that rested on a stepped base and served as a sundial. [Note: Delitzsch, 2:114-15.] Evidently Hezekiah could see it from his sickbed. The passing away of daylight on the stairway symbolized the passing away of Hezekiah’s life, and the return of sunlight represented the restoration of life.
Was this miracle a local or a global phenomenon? What the Lord promised was the movement of the shadow, not the sun that cast the shadow. This opens the possibility for a local miracle in which the shadow moved backward while the earth continued to rotate as usual (cf. 2 Chronicles 32:31).
The reference to King Ahaz recalls the earlier incident involving the sign that God gave that king. God had told him to request a sign as high as heaven (Isaiah 7:11). Now God gave Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, a sign from heaven. Ahaz had refused to ask for a sign because he did not want assurance that God would destroy his allies. Hezekiah requested a sign because he wanted assurance that God would spare his life. Ahaz did not want to trust God, but Hezekiah did.
King Hezekiah wrote the following song after his illness and recovery. This verse is quite similar to the titles of many of the psalms.
Hezekiah’s record of his crisis 38:9-22
The bulk of this section is a psalm of lamentation and thanksgiving that Hezekiah composed after his recovery (Isaiah 38:10-20). It is the only extant narrative in the Old Testament written by a king of Judah after the time of Solomon. [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 744. ] Compare King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon’s similar testimony of praise, after God delivered him from insanity (Daniel 4:34-35). This psalm is also chiastic in structure. It begins with reference to the gates of Sheol and sorrow at the prospect of shortened days (Isaiah 38:10), and it ends with reference to the house of the Lord and joy at the prospect of lengthened days (Isaiah 38:20). The king began by referring to the land of the living being exchanged for the departed (Isaiah 38:11), and he ended with reference to the land of the departed exchanged for the land of the living (Isaiah 38:18-19). In the middle, he contrasted God’s hostility (Isaiah 38:12-14) with His restoration (Isaiah 38:15-17). [Note: Motyer, p. 292.] Hezekiah described his condition first (Isaiah 38:9-14), and then he praised God for His mercy (Isaiah 38:15-20).
When the king had heard Isaiah’s prophecy of his impending death (Isaiah 38:1), he bemoaned the fact that he would enter Sheol, the place of departed spirits, in the prime of his life. Evidently the king felt that God was depriving him of years that He owed him, possibly because he was a righteous man or perhaps just because most people think they will live a normal lifespan.
He sorrowed because his contact with God and with people as a living human being would end. He was not saying anything about his relationship with God after death. He only meant that his present relationship with God and people would end when he died.
Hezekiah viewed his life as fragile as a shepherd’s temporary tent, which shepherds frequently moved from place to place. His life was like a weaver’s finished piece of cloth that the weaver cuts off decisively and rolls up to take away. Both images are of objects that suddenly disappear from their expected places. Before the day of his life was out, the Lord would end it.
"The thought is that in the morning one did not expect anything untoward to occur, and by evening, when darkness had come, the event had already taken place (cf. Job 4:20)." [Note: Young, 2:520.]
The king had composed himself; he had prepared for a normal future. But the Lord had interrupted his plans as an attacking lion surprises its prey and springs on it, breaking its bones.
His incessant prayers to the Lord reminded Hezekiah of the twittering of birds. He looked to the Lord for help in the oppression of his illness and for security.
The king was amazed at the change of events (cf. Isaiah 38:5). Nevertheless the bitter disappointment that had come into his heart because of the prophet’s announcement of impending death (Isaiah 38:1) was something he would never forget.
He prayed that others would learn from his experiences, as he himself would, and that the Lord would indeed restore his health and his life. Another interpretation of the last line of this verse sees the king rejoicing that the Lord would restore him.
The Lord’s announcement, at first bitter to Hezekiah, had turned into a learning experience for him (cf. Romans 8:28). He had learned that God loved him, and he rejoiced in that. God had forgiven his sins, and he would not descend into the grave. The figure of God casting sin behind His back pictures Him throwing it away, out of His sight, because it is of no further interest to Him. Evidently Hezekiah believed that his premature death would have been a punishment for sin.
Those who die cannot thank and praise God for delivering them from death, but Hezekiah could because God had promised him mercy.
Rather it is the living who can praise the Lord and tell their children about His faithfulness to His promises to them.
Hezekiah concluded his poem of praise by affirming his belief that God would be faithful to him and would keep him alive for as long as He had promised (Isaiah 38:5). This would be the basis for his continuing public praise of God in His presence for the rest of his life.
The poem having ended, Isaiah now added a postscript giving more detail about Hezekiah’s recovery. Isaiah 38:21-22 are more smoothly integrated into the story of Hezekiah’s recovery in 2 Kings 20 than they are here. This fact has led scholars to speculate about which account was first, which was second, or did both draw from a common source? There is no way to answer this question for sure. Hezekiah had evidently suffered from a boil, but the boil was probably only a symptom of a more serious disease (cf. Isaiah 38:1). When Isaiah, acting as a physician, applied a fig poultice to the boil, the king recovered (cf. James 5:14).
"This is an example of healing occurring because of a combination of prayer, medicine, and God’s work." [Note: J. Martin, p. 1090.]
Hezekiah had requested the sign that God had sent (Isaiah 38:7-8). He wanted assurance that he would recover so he could worship the Lord again in public. He did not just anticipate recovering, but he looked forward to worshipping after he recovered.
This chapter can stand alone in the text as a positive lesson on prayer, faith, and worship. But, as the next chapter reveals, chapter 38 also records the Lord’s preparation of Hezekiah for another very significant incident in his life. Ahaz had refused to trust God and had refused to ask for a sign. Hezekiah trusted God but then failed to continue to trust Him in spite of a sign. Jerusalem, like Hezekiah, had received a reprieve from God, but it would only be a temporary one for the same reason.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 38". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/
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