2 Kings 20:11
And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the LORD: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.
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(11) And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord.—Thus the sign is evidently regarded by the historian as something directly involving the Divine agency, i.e., as a miracle.

He brought . . . Ahaz.—Literally, and he (i.e., Jehovah) made the shadow return on the steps, which it had descended in the steps of Ahaz, backward ten steps. On the question of how it was done, a good many opinions have been expressed, e.g., by means of a mock sun, a cloud of vapour, an earthquake, a contrivance applied by Isaiah (!) to the sun-dial, &c.

Ephrem Syrus, and other church fathers, believed that the sun receded in his celestial path; but it is not said that the sun went back, but the shadow. (Isaiah 38:8 says “the sun returned,” by a perfectly natural usus loquendi.) Keil assumes “a wondrous refraction of the sun’s rays effected by God at the prayer of Isaiah.” Professor Birks and Mr. Cheyne agree with this, assuming, further, that the refraction was local only. (See 2Chronicles 32:31.) Thenius, after arguing at length in favour of an eclipse (that of September 26th. 713 B.C. , which, however, will not harmonise with the Assyrian chronology), says: “Notwithstanding all this, I do not insist upon the suggested explanation, but I attach myself, with Knobel and Hitzig, to the mythical conception of the narrative.” “That the sign was granted, and that it was due to the direct agency of Him who ordereth all things according to His Divine will, is certain. How it was effected the narrative does not in any way disclose” (the Editor). Ewald and others wish to see in the retrogression of the shadow a token that “Hezekiah’s life-limit was to go back many years;” but the prophet gave the king is choice whether the shadow should go forward or backward.

2 Kings 20:11. Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord — Being moved by God’s Spirit, first to offer him this sign, and then to pray for it. And he brought the shadow ten degrees backward — “The dial in use among the Jews,” says Dr. Dodd, “was a kind of stairs; the time of the day was distinguished, not by lines, but by steps, here called degrees; and the shade of the sun moved forward a new degree every half hour. The Jewish doctors and the ancient Christian fathers were of opinion, that the sun actually went backward. They endeavour to support this opinion by showing that Merodach-baladan was incited, by the view of this miracle, to send his messengers to Hezekiah, see 2 Chronicles 32:31; and, as a further confirmation, they add, that it is really taken notice of by Herodotus, in his Euterpe, chap. 142, where he expressly asserts, that the Egyptians had observed strange alterations in the motions of the sun, it having arisen four times out of its usual course. Though this observation should be allowed to be true, yet from hence we are under no necessity to admit that the sun itself, or the earth, was retrograde, that is to say, that either of them went backward; all that the Scriptures require of us is, to admit the fact of the shadow’s going backward; and this may be accounted for without supposing any uncommon motion, either in the sun or in the earth. Nothing more was required to effect this phenomenon, than a reflection of the sun’s rays, and this might have been caused by an alteration in the density of the atmosphere. To this it may be added, that the original mentions nothing of the sun, but only of its beams or shadow; and how its beams might be inflected by a change made in the atmosphere, may easily be conceived by any person conversant in natural philosophy. This endeavour to account for the phenomenon, by no means lessens the miracle; for we assign the alteration of the atmosphere to the immediate and extraordinary operation of Providence, and every extraordinary interposition of Providence is essentially and properly a miracle. Let it further be observed, we by no means offer this solution in exclusion of others; and if any one thinks that the miracle can be better accounted for in any other way, we shall very readily subscribe to that opinion. Liberum de eo judicium lectori committo, says Vitringa.” See note on Joshua 10:12-13.

20:1-11 Hezekiah was sick unto death, in the same year in which the king of Assyria besieged Jerusalem. A warning to prepare for death was brought to Hezekiah by Isaiah. Prayer is one of the best preparations for death, because by it we fetch in strength and grace from God, to enable us to finish well. He wept sorely: some gather from hence that he was unwilling to die; it is in the nature of man to dread the separation of soul and body. There was also something peculiar in Hezekiah's case; he was now in the midst of his usefulness. Let Hezekiah's prayer, see Isa 38. interpret his tears; in that is nothing which is like his having been under that fear of death, which has bondage or torment. Hezekiah's piety made his sick-bed easy. O Lord, remember now; he does not speak as if God needed to be put in mind of any thing by us; nor, as if the reward might be demanded as due; it is Christ's righteousness only that is the purchase of mercy and grace. Hezekiah does not pray, Lord, spare me; but, Lord, remember me; whether I live or die, let me be thine. God always hears the prayers of the broken in heart, and will give health, length of days, and temporal deliverances, as much and as long as is truly good for them. Means were to be used for Hezekiah's recovery; yet, considering to what a height the disease was come, and how suddenly it was checked, the cure was miraculous. It is our duty, when sick, to use such means as are proper to help nature, else we do not trust God, but tempt him. For the confirmation of his faith, the shadow of the sun was carried back, and the light was continued longer than usual, in a miraculous manner. This work of wonder shows the power of God in heaven as well as on earth, the great notice he takes of prayer, and the great favour he bears to his chosen.It is a light thing - It seemed to Hezekiah comparatively easy that the shadow, which had already begun to lengthen, should merely make a sudden jump in the same direction; but, wholly contrary to all experience that it should change its direction, advancing up the steps again when it had once begun to descend them. 2Ki 20:8-20. The Sun Goes Ten Degrees Backward.

8-11. Hezekiah said unto Isaiah, What will be the sign that the Lord shall heal me—His recovery in the course of nature was so unlooked for, that the king asked for some token to justify his reliance on the truth of the prophet's communication; and the sign he specified was granted to him. The shadow of the sun went back upon the dial of Ahaz the ten degrees it had gone down. Various conjectures have been formed as to this dial. The word in the original is "degrees," or "steps," and hence many commentators have supposed that it was a stair, so artfully contrived, that the shadows on the steps indicated the hours and course of the sun. But it is more probable that it was a proper instrument, and, from the Hebrews having no term to designate it, that it was one of the foreign novelties imported from Babylon by Ahaz. It seems to have been of such magnitude, and so placed in the court, that Isaiah could point to it, and the king see it, from his chamber. The retrogression of the sun's shadow on the dial was miraculously accomplished by the omnipotent power of God; but the phenomenon was temporary, local, confined to the notice, and intended for the satisfaction, only of Hezekiah and his court.

Isaiah cried unto the Lord; being moved by God’s Spirit first to offer him this sign, and then to pray for it.

Ten degrees backward.

Quest. 1. What were these degrees?

Answ. Lines in the dial; but whether each of these lines or degrees noted an hour, or half an hour, or a quarter of an hour, is uncertain, and not very considerable in this case.

Quest. 2. What was it that went down? Answ. Either, first, The shadow alone went back without the sun; for God could so dispose of the light of the sun, by interposing clouds, or other things, so that the shadow should fall only upon those lines, and in that manner as God directed it. And whereas the sun is said to have gone down, that may be spoken according to appearance, as other passages of Scripture are understood; as when the moon is called one of the great lights, Ge 1, though it be less than some of the stars; and when the sun is said to go down, Jeremiah 15:9, and to be turned into darkness, Joel 2:31. Or, secondly, The sun itself went back, and the shadow with it. This may seem most probable, first, By comparing this with Joshua 10:13, where the sun itself stood still. Secondly, Because it is said the sun itself returned, Isaiah 38:8; for which he here mentions

the shadow only, because the miracle was not so easily discovered in the sun as in the shadow of a dial. And though the sun may be elsewhere taken improperly, yet where the improper signification is unnecessary, the proper is and ought to be preferred before it. Thirdly, Because this miracle was noted by the Babylonians, who, having understood that it was done for Hezekiah’s sake, sent to inquire into the truth and manner of it, 2 Chronicles 32:31.

Object. If this had been done, the heathen historians and astronomers would have taken notice of it, which we do not find that they did.

Answ. So it is most probable they did, although those books be not now extant; which is not strange; this being confessed and bewailed, that so very few of the first and ancient writers are now left; Herodotus himself, the first, and father of the ancient historians, being long after this time. And yet it is observed, that there are some intimations of these things left, though mixed with fables, as many true histories were; as what the poets fabled of Jupiter’s making the night twice as long as it should have been, that he might enjoy Alcmena longer. Whether the sun or shadow went backward suddenly, or leisurely, and in the same time in which it had gone down, is a question of no great moment, the miracle being evident either way.

In the dial of Ahaz; which Ahaz had made in the king’s palace. This dial he mentions, because the truth of the miracle might be best and soonest discovered there; this dial possibly being visible out of the king’s chamber, or at least being near do it, and the degrees being most distinct and conspicuous in this dial; but the same thing was discerned by all other dials.

And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord,.... Or prayed, as the Targum; and was very earnest in prayer, that what Hezekiah had desired might be granted:

and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz; Ben Gersom understands it not of the sun itself, but of the shadow of it only; See Gill on Isaiah 38:8.

And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the LORD: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the {h} dial of Ahaz.

(h) Which was set at the top of the stairs that Ahaz had made.

11. And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord] This verse and the two preceding are much compressed in the narrative of Isaiah, and nothing is said of Isaiah’s supplication, nor of the alternatives offered to the king. The whole is put into the form of a direct message from God, ‘Behold I will bring again’ &c.

he brought the shadow ten degrees [R.V. steps] backward] The statement in Isaiah is not made concerning the shadow, but the sun. ‘So the sun returned ten degrees’ (R.V. steps).

in [R.V. on] the dial of Ahaz] As will be seen from the margin of R.V., the word here rendered ‘dial’ is the same which in the previous verses the Revisers have translated ‘steps’. Also wherever the word is used elsewhere, and it is not of rare occurrence, it always refers to steps or stairs. It seems therefore best to consider that the contrivance by which the time of day was marked in this case was something which could be called a ‘staircase’ or ‘steps’. We must think too of the sign as given to Hezekiah while he lay upon what had been till a short space before, the bed of sickness and expected death. We must therefore conclude that the contrivance, whatever it was, must have been one which the king could see from his chamber. Probably it would be in the court of the palace, and there it might take the form of a staircase-like erection, with a gnomon or projecting shaft, so contrived that the shadow thrown by it should fall along the steps and grow shorter or longer as the sun rose or fell in the heavens. Or it might be a staircase proper, erected on one side of the court, and a staff or pole might be so fixed as to cast a shadow which by the motion of the sun would descend or rise on the steps. If such a staircase existed on the opposite side of the court to the king’s chamber (and such external staircases were very common) the means by which the sign should be given were ready to hand. Several kinds of sundials have been suggested which would fulfil the conditions, and Ahaz from his connexion with the Assyrians may have become acquainted with them, for they were first invented by the Babylonians. But to none of these instruments could we easily apply the word ‘steps’ so as to call the contrivance, as the Hebrew does, ‘the steps of Ahaz’.

With regard to the length of time which is indicated by the word ‘step’ we have nothing to guide us. There is no necessity therefore to understand an alteration in the shadow equivalent to ten hours of our day. If it were half or a quarter of that time, it would be a very appreciable change on the dial.

Of the speculations how the miracle was brought to pass none can be expected to be satisfactory. And we should bear with us, on such matters, Job’s question (2 Kings 11:7) ‘Canst thou by searching find out God?’ There have been some who thought that the earth’s motion was really reversed, but modern science has shown that by refraction, (of course in this case, taking place out of the ordinary course of nature,) such an alteration in the position of the shadow might be effected. Another opinion put forward is that the sun was eclipsed, in such wise that the upper limb was obscured, which would have the effect of lengthening all shadows, and thus causing the appearance of going backward on the dial of the stairs.

Bishop Hall’s remarks are ‘whether shall we more wonder at the measure of the love of God to Hezekiah, or at the power of Isaiah’s faith in God? Out of both, either the sun goes back in heaven that his shadow may go back on earth; or the shadow no less miraculously goes back on earth, while the sun goes forward in heaven. It is true that the prophet speaks of the shadow, not of the sun; except perhaps because the motion of the sun is best discerned by the shadow, and the motion of the shadow is led by the course of the sun. Besides that, the demonstration of this miracle is reported to be local, in the dial of Ahaz, not universal in the sensible length of the day: withal the retreat of the sun had made a public and noted change in the frame of nature; this particular alteration of the shadow, in places limited, might satisfy no less without a confusive mutation in the face of the world. Whethersoever, to draw the sun back together with the shadow, or to draw the shadow back without the sun, was the proof of the Divine omnipotence, able therefore to draw back the life of Hezekiah fifteen degrees from the night of death to which it was hastening’.

Verse 11. - And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord. Though the sign had been promised, Isaiah regarded his own intercessional prayer as not out of place, and "cried unto the Lord," i.e. prayed with energy, that the king's wish might be accomplished. So, though we have God's promise to care for us, and keep us from want (Matthew 6:25-30), yet we must daily beseech him to "give us this day our daily bread." And he brought the shadow ten degrees backward. How this was done, we are not told, and can therefore only conjecture. The earlier commentators imagined that the revolution of the earth upon its axis was actually reversed for a time; but this idea is now generally rejected. It is clear from 2 Chronicles 32:31 that the phenomenon, whatever may have been its cause, was local, "done in the land" of Judah, and not visible elsewhere. Some moderns have suggested an earthquake affecting the gnomon; some a trick on the part of Isaiah; ethers, and the generality, a very abnormal refraction of the sun's rays. An observed instance of something similar, which took place at Metz, in Lotheringia, in the year 1703, is on record. Two scientists, Professor Seyffarth and Mr. J. W. Bosanquet, think that the phenomenon was due to an eclipse, in which the upper limb of the sun was obscured temporarily. In such a case a slight recession of the shadow would certainly take place; but it would scarcely be such as to attract attention from any one but a scientific observer (Stanley, 'Lectures on the Jewish Church,' vol. 2. p. 537). On the whole, the most probable cause would seem to be refraction, which is accepted by Keil, Bahr, and Kay. By which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz; literally, on the steps of Ahaz. Sundials were invented by the Babylonians (Herod., 2:109), and were no doubt in use at Babylon long before the time of Hezekiah. They were of various kinds, and in some of them the gnomon was made to cast its shadow upon steps. There are still two dials in India - one at Benares, known as the Manmandir, and the other at Delhi - where this is the case (see Mr. Bosanquet's paper, already quoted, plate opp. p. 35). 2 Kings 20:11Isaiah then prayed to the Lord, and the Lord "turned back the shadow (caused it to go back) upon the sun-dial, where it had gone down, on the sundial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward." אחז מעלות cannot be understood, as it has been by the lxx, Joseph., Syr., as referring to a flight of steps at the palace of Ahaz, which was so arranged that the shadow of an object standing near indicated the hours, but is no doubt a gnomon, a sun-dial which Ahaz may have received from Babylonia, where sun-dials were discovered (Herod. ii. 109). Nothing further can be inferred from the words with regard to its construction, since the ancients had different kinds of sun-dials (cf. Martini Abhandlung von den Sonnenuhren der Alten, Lpz. 1777). The word מעלות steps in the literal sense, is transferred to the scala, which the shadow had to traverse both up and down upon the disk of the sun-dial, and is used both to denote the separate degrees of this scala, and also for the sum-total of these scala, i.e., for the sun-dial itself, without there being any necessity to assume that it was an obelisk-like pillar erected upon an elevated place with steps running round it (Knobel), or a long portable scale of twice ten steps with a gnomon (Gumpach, Alttestl. Studien, pp. 181ff.). All that follows from the descent of the shadow is that the dial of the gnomon was placed in a vertical direction; and the fact that the shadow went ten degrees down or backward, simply presupposes that the gnomon had at least twenty degrees, and therefore that the degrees indicated smaller portions of time than hours. If, then, it is stated in 2 Kings 20:8 of Isaiah that the sun went back ten degrees, whereas the going back of the shadow had been previously mentioned in agreement with our text, it is self-evident that the sun stands for the shining of the sun which was visible upon the dial-plate, and which made the shadow recede. We are not, of course, to suppose that the sun in the sky and the shadow on the sun-dial went back at the same time, as Knobel assumes. So far as the miracle is concerned, the words of the text do not require that we should assume that the sun receded, or the rotation of the earth was reversed, as Eph. Syr. and others supposed, but simply affirm that there was a miraculous movement backward of the shadow upon the dial, which might be accounted for from a miraculous refraction of the rays of the sun, effected by God at the prophet's prayer, of which slight analoga are met with in the ordinary course of nature.

(Note: As, for example, the phenomenon quoted by several commentators, which was observed at Metz in Lothringen in the year 1703 by the prior of the convent there, P. Romuald, and other persons, viz., that the shadow of a sun-dial went back an hour and a half. - The natural explanation of the miracle which is given by Thenius, who attributes it to an eclipse of the sun, needs no refutation. - For the different opinions of the earlier theologians, see Carpzov, Apparat. crit. p. 351ff.)

This miraculous sign was selected as a significant one in itself, to confirm the promise of a fresh extension of life which had been given to Hezekiah by the grace of God in opposition to the natural course of things. The retrograde movement of the shadow upon the sun-dial indicated that Hezekiah's life, which had already arrived at its close by natural means, was to be put back by a miracle of divine omnipotence, so that it might continue for another series of years.

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