Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 38

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22

The Critical Illness of Hezekiah (38:1-22)

Verses 1-8 and 21-22 of this chapter are a slightly abbreviated version of 2 Kings 20:1-11. In verses 9-20 there is inserted a psalm of thanksgiving for recovery from illness, the authorship of which tradition had credited to Hezekiah. This psalm is not included in the account in Second Kings.

The narrative concerns an illness of Hezekiah, the nature of which we do not know, though verse 21 seems to suggest that it was a bad boil or abscess, for which a poultice of figs was used at Isaiah’s direction. The illness was so severe, however, that the word of the Lord to Isaiah for Hezekiah was to the effect that the king was not going to recover. After a prayer on Hezekiah’s part, a second word of the Lord came to Isaiah declaring that God had heard his prayer and would add fifteen additional years to his life. Verse 6 adds the promise that the city of Jerusalem would be delivered from the hand of the Assyrian king. It would suggest that the illness was in connection with the second campaign of Sennacherib against Jerusalem in the period between 690 and 688 b.c. Fifteen years before 690 b.c. would bring us back to 705 b.c., the time when Hezekiah began the plans for revolt against Assyria during the first year of the reign of Sennacherib. Whether the number “fifteen” here is to be taken with that much precision is uncertain. It was probably a round number preserved in the tradition, and it is better to assume that the actual incident of Hezekiah’s sickness cannot be dated exactly.

Accompanying the prayer and the promise of additional years to the king’s life is the tradition of a sign given by God to Hezekiah in verses 7-8. This is given in somewhat more detail in 2 Kings 20:8-11. The sign has to do with the shadow cast by the sun on something that is translated “the dial of Ahaz.” The reference, however, is to some architectural feature connected with the royal palace in Jerusalem, perhaps an upper story built by King Ahaz, to which one obtained access by climbing a series of steps. The sign has to do with the sun drawing a lengthening shadow on the steps as it declined in the afternoon. In any event, it is quite clear that “dial” is not a proper translation of the architectural feature in question.

The psalm in verses 10-20 is a composition that was probably written for use in a Temple service when a worshiper, after recovery from serious illness or rescue from some dangerous situation, went to the Temple to present an offering of th anks giving. The Psalter has a number of compositions composed for similar use (for example, Psalms 6, 56-61; see also Jonah 2:2-9). The psalmist begins by lamenting the threat of untimely death, when he will be consigned to the underworld, where he will be separated from “the land of the living” and thus will not be able to see the activity of God. The death of an individual, when it was an untimely death, was a problem to Israelite faith because of the conception of Sheol which Israel shared with her environment. In Sheol everything is the opposite to what it is in life on earth. It is a dark and silent place without activity. Consequently, the real problem of death for the Israelite was that it separated him from the living God and his purposes and activity in history. In the postexilic and Intertestament periods this conception gave way among certain of the Jewish groups to the conception of God’s conquest of death and a belief in the resurrection from the dead (Daniel 12:2).

The psalmist continues with a description of his present plight by a variety of metaphors. He has called on God for help until he is “weary with looking upward.” All his sleep has fled. In verses 16-19 he prays for deliverance and restoration to health, to the end that in this life he may praise and give thanks to God for his faithfulness. The final verse expresses the certainty that the Lord indeed will save him and that it will be possible to sing songs in the courts of the Temple during the rest of his life.

Verse 22 is evidently a misplaced fragment. In it Hezekiah asks about the sign; and for that question verses 7-8 give the answer as indicated in the fuller form of the narrative in 2 Kings 20:8-11.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 38". "Layman's Bible Commentary".