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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Kings 20

 

 

Verses 1-19

HEZEKIAH’S SICKNESS, AND THE EMBASSY FROM BABYLON

2 Kings 20:1-19

"Thou hast loved me out of the pit of nothingness,"

- Isaiah 38:17 (A.V, margin)

"See the shadow of the dial In the lot of every one Marks the passing of the trial, Proves the presence of the Sun."

- E.B. BROWNING

IN the chaos of uncertainties which surrounds the chronology of King Hezekiah’s reign, it is impossible to fix a precise date to the sickness which almost brought him to the grave. It has, however, been conjectured by some Assyriologists that the story of this episode has been displaced, because it seemed to break the continuity of the narrative of the Assyrian invasion; and that, though it is placed in the Book of Kings after the deliverance from Sennacherib, it really followed the earlier incursion of Sargon. This is rendered more probable by Isaiah’s promise, {2 Kings 20:6} "I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the King of Assyria," and by the fact that Hezekiah still possessed such numerous and splendid treasures to display to the ambassadors of Merodach-Baladan. This could hardly have been the case after he had been forced to pay a fine to the King of Assyria of all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king’s house, to cut off the gold from the doors and pillars of the Temple, and even to send as captives to Nineveh some of his wives, and of the eunuchs of his palace. The date "in those days" {2 Kings 20:1} is vague and elastic, and may apply to any time before or after the great invasion.

He was sick unto death. The only indication which we have of the nature of his illness is that it took the form of a carbuncle or imposthume, which could be locally treated, but which, in days of very imperfect therapeutic knowledge, might easily end in death, especially if it were on the back of the neck. The conjecture of Witsius and others that it was a form of the plague which they suppose to have caused the disaster to the Assyrian army has nothing whatever to recommend it.

Seeing the fatal character of his illness, Isaiah came to the king with the dark message, "Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live."

The message is interesting as furnishing yet another proof that even the most positive announcements of the prophets were, and were always meant to be, to some extent hypothetical and dependent on unexpressed conditions. This was the case with the famous prophecy of Micah that Zion should be ploughed down into a heap of ruins. It was never fulfilled; yet the prophet lost none of his authority, for it was well understood that the doom which would otherwise have been carried out had been averted by timely penitence.

But the message of Isaiah fell with terrible anguish on the heart of the suffering king. He had hoped for a better fate. He had begun a great religious reformation. He had uplifted his people, at least in part, out of the moral slough into which they had fallen in the days of his predecessor. He had inspired into his threatened capital something of his own faith and courage. Surely he, if any man, might claim the old promises which Jehovah in His loving-kindness and truth had sworn to his father David and his father Abraham, that he being delivered out of the hand of his enemies should serve God without fear, walking in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of his life. He was but a young man still-perhaps not yet thirty years old; further, not only would he leave behind him an unfinished work, but he was childless, and therefore it seemed as if with him would end the direct line of the house of David, heir to so many precious promises. He has left us-it is preserved in the Book of Isaiah-the poem which he wrote on his recovery, but which enshrines the emotion of his agonizing anticipations:-{Isaiah 38:10-20}

"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 Yah, Yah, in the land of the living,

I shall behold no man more, when I am among them that cease to be.

Mine habitation is removed, and is carried away from me like a shepherd’s tent.

Like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he will cut me from the thrum.

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

I did mourn as a dove; mine eyes fail with looking upward.

O Lord, I am oppressed; be Thou my surety."

We must remember, as we contemplate his utter prostration of soul, that he was not blessed, as we are, with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. All was dim and dark to him in the shadowy world of eidola beyond the grave, and many a century was to elapse before Christ brought life and immortality to light. To enter Sheol meant to Hezekiah to pass beyond the cheerful sunshine of earth and the felt presence of God. No more worship, no more gladness there!

"For Sheol cannot praise Thee, Death cannot celebrate Thee;

They that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy truth."

On every ground, therefore, the feelings of Hezekiah, had he not been a worshipper of God, might have been like those of Mycerinus, and, like that legendary Egyptian king, he might have cursed God before he died.

"My father loved injustice, and lived long;

I loved the good he scorned and hated wrong-

The gods declare my recompense today.

I looked for life more lasting, rule more high;

And when six years are measured, lo, I die!

Yet surely, O my people, did I ween,

Man’s justice from the all-just gods was given,

A light that from some upper point did beam,

Some better archetype whose seat was heaven:

A light that, shining from the blest abodes

Did shadow somewhat of the life of gods."

The indignation of Mycerinus often finds an echo on Pagan tombstones, as in the famous epitaph on the grave of the girl Procope:-

"I, Procope, lift up my hands against the gods,

Who took me hence undeserving,

Aged nineteen years."

It was far otherwise with Hezekiah. There was anguish in his heart, but no rebellion or defiance. He wept sore; he turned his face to the wall and wept; but as he wept he also prayed, and said, -

"O Lord, remember now how I have walked before Thee in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thy sight."

Isaiah, after delivering his dark message, and doubtless adding to it such words of human consolation as were possible-if under such circumstances any were possible-had left the king’s chamber. On every ground his feelings must have been almost as overwhelmed with sorrow as those of the king. Hezekiah was personally his friend, and the hope of his nation. Doubtless the prophet’s prayers rose as fervently and as effectually as those of Luther, which snatched his friend Melanchthon back from the very gates of death. By the time that he had reached the middle of the court, he felt borne in upon him, by that Divine intuition which constituted his prophetic call, the certainty that God would withdraw the immediate doom which he had been commissioned to announce. It has been conjectured by some that the conviction was deepened in his mind by observing on the steps of Ahaz one of those remarkable but rare effects of refraction-or, as some have conjectured, of a solar eclipse, involving an obscuration of the upper limb of the sun-which had seemed to take the advancing shadow ten steps backwards; and that this was to him a sign from heaven of the promise of God and the prolongation of the king’s life. Awestruck and glad, he hastened back into the presence of the dying king with the life-giving message that God had heard his prayer, and seen his tears, and would add fifteen years to his life, and would defend him, and deliver him and Jerusalem out of the hand of the King of Assyria. And this should be the sign to him from Jehovah.-Jehovah would bring again the shadow ten steps up the stairs of Ahaz. To this sign-if it was visible from the chamber window-he called the attention of the astonished king.

We here naturally follow the narrative of Isaiah himself, as more authoritative than that of the historian of the Kings as to details in which they differ. Not only is it quite in accordance with all that we know of history that slight variations should occur in the traditions of long-past times, but the text of the Book of Kings suggests some difficulty. There we read that Hezekiah asked Isaiah what should be the sign of the promise-not mentioned in Isaiah-that he should go up to the House of the Lord the third day. Isaiah then asked him whether the sign should be that the shadow should advance ten steps, or recede ten steps. But there is no interrogation in the Hebrew, which rather means, "The shadow hath advanced ten steps in it; shall recede ten steps?" or if we insert the interrogation in the first clause, "Hath the shadow advanced ten steps?" The king’s natural answer to so strange an alternative would be that for the shadow to advance ten steps was nothing; whereas its retrogression would be a sign indeed. Then Isaiah cried unto Jehovah, and the shadow went backward. In the obvious divergence of details we naturally follow Isaiah himself; and if it be a true and understood rule of all theology, "Miracula non sunt multiplicanda procter necessitatem, " the miracle in this case-in the opportuneness of its occurrence, and the issues which it inspired-was none the less a miracle because it was carried out in direct accordance with God’s unseen, perpetual, miraculous Providence, which none but unbelievers will nickname Chance. That we are here dealing with a historic incident is certain; and they who see and acknowledge God in all history find no difficulty at all in seeing His dealings with men in striking interpositions. But these, by the analogy of His whole Divine economy, would naturally be carried out in accordance with natural laws.

The words rendered "the sun-dial of Ahaz" mean no more than "the steps [ma’aloth] of Ahaz." Ahaz evidently was a king of aesthetic tastes, who was fond of introducing foreign novelties and curiosities into Jerusalem. Steps, with a staff on the top of them as a gnomon, to serve as sun-dials had been invented at Babylon, and Ahaz may probably have become acquainted with their form and use when he paid his visit to Tiglath-Pileser at Damascus. No one could blame him-it was indeed a meritorious act - to introduce to his people so useful an invention. The word "hour" first occurs in Daniel 3:6, and it was doubtless from Babylon that the Hebrews borrowed the division of days into hours. This is the earliest instance in the Bible of the mention of any instrument to measure time. That the recession of the shadow could be caused by refraction is certain, for it has been observed in modern days. Thus, as is mentioned by Rosenmüller, on March 27th, 1703, Pere Romauld, prior of the monastery at Metz, noticed that the shadow on his dial deviated an hour and a half, owing to refraction in the higher regions of the atmosphere. Or again, according to Mr. Bosanquet, the same effect might have been produced by the darkening shadow of an eclipse. But while he appealed to Divine indications the great prophet did not neglect natural remedies. He ordered that a cake of figs should be laid on the imposthume. It was a recognized and an efficient remedy, still recommended, centuries later, by Dioscorides, by Pliny, and by St. Jerome. By God’s blessing on man’s therapeutic care, the king was speedily rescued from the gates of death. Constantly in Scripture what we call the miraculous and what we call the providential are mingled together. To those who regard the providential as a constant miracle, the question of the miraculous becomes subordinate.

With intense joy and gratitude the king hailed the respite which God had granted him. In fifteen years much might be done, much might be hoped for. All this he acknowledged with deep feeling in the song which he wrote on his recovery.

"I shall go as in solemn procession {Psalms 42:4} all my years because of the bitterness of my soul.

O Lord, by these things men live,

And wholly therein is the life of my spirit."

"Behold, it was for my peace that I had great bitterness;

But Thou hast loved my soul from the pit of nothingness:

For Thou hast cast all my sins behind Thy back.

The Lord is ready to save me;

Therefore will we sing my songs to the stringed instruments

All the days of our life in the house of the Lord." {Isaiah 38:10-20}

"The wonder done in the land" was, according to the Chronicler, one of the grounds for the embassy which, after his recovery, Hezekiah received from Merodach-Baladan, the patriot prince of Babylon. The other ostensible object of the embassy was to send letters and a present in congratulation for the king’s restoration to health. But the real object lay deeper, out of sight. It was to secure a southern alliance for Babylon against the incessant tyranny of Nineveh.

Merodach-Baladan is mentioned in the inscriptions of Sargon. He is described as "Merodach-Baladan, son of Baladan, King of Sumir and Accad, king of the four countries, and conqueror of all his enemies." There had been long struggles, lasting indeed for centuries, between the city on the Euphrates and the city on the Tigris. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, had been victorious. Babylon-on the monuments Kur-Dunyash-had its original Accadian name of Ca-dinirra, which, like its Semitic equivalent Bab-el, means "Gate of God." Kalah (Larissa and Birs Nimroud) had been built by Shal-maneser I before B.C. 1300. His son conquered Babylon, but not permanently; for in some later raid the Babylonians got possession of his signet-ring, with its proud inscription, "Conqueror of Kur-Dunyash," and it was not recovered by the Assyrians till six centuries later, when it fell into the hands of Sennacherib. About 1150 Nebuchadrezzar I of Babylon thrice invaded Assyria, but there was again peace and alliance in 1100. Merodach-Baladan I reigned before 900. The king who now sought the friendship of Hezekiah was the second of the name. He seized or recovered the throne of Babylon in 721, after the death of Shalmaneser, perhaps because Sargon was a usurper of dubious descent. He helped the Elamites against Assyria. Sargon was compelled to retreat to Assyria, but returned in 712, and drove Merodach-Baladan to flight. He was captured and taken to Assyria. But on the murder of Sargon in 705, he again managed to seize the throne of Babylon, killed the viceroy who had been set up, and became king for six months. After this, Sennacherib invaded his country, defeated him, and drove him once more to flight. He was perhaps killed by his successor.

Whether his overtures to Hezekiah took place before his defeat by Sargon, or after his escape, is uncertain. In either case he doubtless sent a splendid embassy, for Babylon was far-famed for its golden magnificence as "the glory of kingdoms" and "the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency." {Isaiah 14:4; Isaiah 13:19} At that time the Jews knew but little of the far-off city which was destined to be so closely interwoven with their future fortunes, as it was mingled with their oldest and dimmest traditions. {Genesis 10:10-11; Genesis 11:1-9} Apart from the magnificence of the presents brought to him, it was not unnatural that Hezekiah should regard this embassy with intense satisfaction. It was flattering to the power of his little kingdom that its alliance should be sought by the far-off and powerful capital on the great river; it was still more encouraging to know that the frightful Nineveh had a strong enemy not far from her own frontier. Merodach-Baladan’s ambassadors would be sure to inform Hezekiah that their lord had flung off the authority of Sargon, had kept him at bay for many years, and was still the undisputed king of the dominions snatched from the common enemy. It might have seemed reasonable that Hezekiah, for his part, should desire to leave the most favorable impression of his wealth and power on the mind of his distant and magnificent ally. He "hearkened unto" the ambassadors, or, more properly, "he was glad of them" (R.V), and "showed them all the house of his spicery and other treasures, his precious unguents, his armory his bullion, plate, and the whole resources of his kingdom." The Chronicler regards this as ingratitude to God. He says that "Hezekiah rendered not again according unto the benefits done unto him; for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem." It is a severe judgment of later times, and the historian of the Kings pronounces no such censure. Nevertheless, he records the stern sentence pronounced by Isaiah. The prophet had seen through the secret diplomacy of the Babylonian ambassadors, and knew that the real object of their mission was to induce his king to revolt against Assyria in reliance on an arm of flesh. He came to ask Hezekiah whose these men were, whence they came, and what they had said. The king told him who they were, and how he had received them; but he did not think it wise to reveal their secret proposals. If Isaiah had so vehemently reproved all negotiations with Egypt, there was little probability that he would sanction the overtures of Babylon. He saw in Hezekiah’s conduct a vein of ostentatious elation, a swerving from theocratic faith; and with remarkable prophetic insight convinced the king of the error and impolicy of his proceedings, by announcing that the final and, in fact, irrevocable captivity of Judah would ultimately come, not from Nineveh, the fierce enemy, whose cloud of war was lurid on the horizon, but from Babylon, the apparently weaker friend, who was now making overtures of amity. With what heartrending grief must the king have heard the doom that the display of his treasures would prove to be in the future an incentive to the cupidity of the kings of Babylon, and that they would sweep away all those precious things to the banks of the Euphrates with such final overthrow that even the descendants of David should be sunk to the infinite degradation of being eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon. {See Daniel 1:6} The doom seems to have been fulfilled in part in the reign of Hezekiah’s son, and more fearfully in the days of his great-grandchildren. {2 Chronicles 33:11}

The king’s pride was humbled to the dust. In the spirit of Job-"The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" {Job 1:21}-he resigned himself without a murmur to the will of Heaven, and exclaimed that all which God did must be well done. At least God granted him a respite. Peace and truth would be in his own days; for that let him be thankful. They were words of humble resignation, uttered by one who had learnt to believe that whatever God decreed was just and right.

It would be unjust to measure the feelings of those far centuries by those of our own day, and there was none of the gross selfishness in the words of Hezekiah which led Nero to quote the line-

"When I am dead, let earth be mixed with fire"; or which led Louis XIV to say-

"Apres moi le deluge."

We may perhaps trace in his exclamation something of the fatalism which gives a touch of apathy to the submissiveness of the Oriental. Some, too, have imagined that his distress was tinged by a gleam of happiness at the implicit promise that he should have a son. His wife’s name was Hephzibah ("My delight is in her"), and within two years she brought forth the firstborn son, whose career, indeed, was dark and evil, but who became in due time an ancestor of the promised Messiah. The name "Manasseh" given him by his parents recalled the child born to Joseph in the land of his exile who had caused him to forget his sorrows. Hezekiah had the spirit which says, -

"That which Thou blessest is most good,

And unblest good is ill;

And all is right which seems most wrong,

So it be Thy sweet will."

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 20:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-kings-20.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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