Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.Ch. 2 Kings 20:1-11. Sickness of king Hezekiah. His life is prolonged in answer to his prayer. The sign given by God that this should be so (2 Chronicles 32:24; Isaiah 38:1-22)
1. In those days was Hezekiah sick] Scripture writers are not precise in specifying times, and ‘in those days’ may mean no more than ‘about that time’ either before or after the defeat of the Assyrians. But there are one or two marks which may help us to come to a conclusion. In verse 6 the promise is made ‘I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria’. But these words seem to relate rather to a further continued preservation than to the overthrow which drove Sennacherib away. Though the Assyrians were gone, it was not unlikely that they would return. It is to deliverance from all such future attacks that God’s promise is best referred. For the visit of the ambassadors of the king of Babylon was ‘at that time’ (verse 12), clearly when Hezekiah had recovered, and when time enough had elapsed for the news about the sickness and the recovery to have reached Babylon. But the embassy was not merely for the purposes of congratulation, but to secure Hezekiah’s alliance with Babylon against Assyria. The time would seem to the Babylonians most opportune for shaking off the Assyrian yoke, and the help of that power in attacking which the Assyrians had suffered so much loss, would appear the very best help that could be sought. Hence Berodach-baladan availed himself of the excuse of congratulating Hezekiah on his recovery to send an embassy to sound the king of Judah on the subject of an alliance. Hezekiah’s answer was given by the exhibition of his supplies and stores of armour. Connecting the events together thus, we come to the conclusion that Hezekiah’s sickness occurred soon after the Assyrian overthrow, and that thus the notes of time which fix (2 Kings 18:13) Sennacherib’s invasion in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, and promise the king fifteen years more of life are substantially exact, and fill up together the twenty-nine years assigned to Hezekiah’s reign in 2 Kings 18:2.
And the prophet Isaiah [R.V. Isaiah the prophet] the son of Amoz] The change of order conforms to Isaiah 38:1.
Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live] One can hardly read these words without the conviction that the conduct of Hezekiah, after his deliverance from the Assyrian siege, had not been such as to find favour with God. A message of this kind would not be sent from God without good cause. Either there had been a lack of thankfulness, or the king was too much elated with the glory of so miraculous a deliverance. That Hezekiah could think of his own greatness and forget to point to God as its author is seen as we read of the display he made before the Babylonian embassy, which is recorded in this chapter.
Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the LORD, saying,2. Then he turned his face to the wall] He was in deep sorrow, and would pray without being observed. Ahab did the like, but it was in childish petulance (1 Kings 21:4). If Manasseh was the eldest son of Hezekiah, the king was at this time childless, for Manasseh was but twelve years old at his father’s death. Hence not only his own life, but the succession of the house of David appeared likely to come to an end.
I beseech thee, 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. And Hezekiah wept sore.3. I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now] R.V. Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee. The R.V. adopts the order of the words in Isaiah.
It was only at a moment of great elation and prosperity that Hezekiah forgat God. The testimony which he himself bears to his own character appears to be generally true. He must have lived as a God-fearing son under an idolatrous father. When he came to the throne, while he had the work of purifying God’s worship in hand, and the Philistines were not driven out of Judah, he did all things well. But after some prosperous years he had himself to own to Sennacherib ‘I have offended’. During the war with Assyria he set a noble example. When the pressure was removed he gave way for a short time to pride and a boastful spirit. Moreover his care for his son’s training, if we may judge by Manasseh’s life when he became king, can hardly have been so zealous as we might expect from a father whose youth had been passed amid the difficulties of an idolatrous court. Altogether Hezekiah is one of those characters which shine brightest in adversity.
And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying,4. into the middle court] R.V. middle part of the city. The variation is due to a difference of reading, the R.V. translating, as is nearly always the case, the Kethib. The LXX. and most of the versions render the Keri, which the A.V. follows. The Kethib has הציר, the Keri substitutes חצר, which latter is the word for the ‘court’ of the palace in the description of Solomon’s buildings (1 Kings 7:8). But the city of Jerusalem was built on two hills, the western of which was more than a hundred feet higher than the eastern. The expression in the text would apply exactly to the portion lying between these two, and there seems to be no reason for accepting the Keri. It probably has sprung from a desire to represent God as hearing prayer so readily that a favourable answer was given before the prophet was beyond the precincts of the palace.
A description of the city will be found in Josephus, B. J. v. 4, 1, seqq. where the three parts of Jerusalem are noticed, the upper city (ἡ ἄνω πόλις) being Zion, the lower (ἡ κάτω πόλις) Akra. Isaiah had, according to the Kethib, gone into the portion between these two.
Turn again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the LORD.5. tell [R.V. say to] Hezekiah the captain [R.V. prince] of my people] The first of these changes is in conformity with Isaiah. The latter clause ‘the captain &c.’ is not in the parallel place in Isaiah, where, in this portion of the narrative, the whole record is much briefer.
The name ‘prince’ (Heb. nagid) is that which was applied by Jehovah Himself to the first elected king of Israel (1 Samuel 9:16), Saul.
behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord] These words are not found in Isaiah. But there is given there the thanksgiving of Hezekiah which expresses the feelings with which the king would go up to the temple to acknowledge the goodness which had spared his life. It is called ‘the writing of Hezekiah when he had been sick and was recovered of his sickness’ (Isaiah 38:9), and is a sort of psalm of thanksgiving.
Though the promise of God ‘thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord’ is omitted in Isaiah we yet see from the concluding words of Isaiah 38. that the thought of it was in the writer’s mind, for he tells us ‘Hezekiah had said, What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?’
And 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 for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake.6. fifteen years] See above on verse 1.
I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria] Some stress has been laid on these words as though they necessarily implied that Jerusalem was still besieged. The preposition rendered ‘out of’ is literally ‘from’, and if that be borne in mind there is no reason why the words should not refer to the continued protection which Hezekiah and his city enjoyed afterwards when Sennacherib had been driven away.
for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake] These words, which occur before in 2 Kings 19:34, are not found in Isaiah 38.
And Isaiah said, Take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.7. Take a lump [R.V. cake] of figs] Except here and in Isaiah 38. ‘cake’ is the constant rendering of A.V. for this word. See 1 Samuel 25:18; 1 Samuel 30:12; 1 Chronicles 12:40. The figs were closely pressed together for better keeping when they were dried, just as we find is done at the present time.
The virtue of figs made into a plaster has long been celebrated. Gerarde in his Herball (p. 1328) says, ‘Figs stamped and made into the form of a plaister … soften and ripen impostumes … all hot and angry swellings, and tumours behind the eares’. The boil from which Hezekiah was suffering was clearly something of this character, and confined to one spot, so that it could be treated by a poultice. It was therefore most likely some sort of carbuncle, which in certain parts of the body, as the back of the neck, can prove fatal. The conjectures some of which make the disease to be pleurisy, others the plague, contracted from the Assyrians, others, elephantiasis or leprosy, are not so probable, as none of them appear likely to have been treated by a plaster.
And Hezekiah said unto Isaiah, What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up into the house of the LORD the third day?8. What shall be the sign] The king would have some token at once that the promise made to him should come to pass, and though the time was out very brief to wait, yet his request is granted. In Isaiah 7:11 there was a sign offered by God to Hezekiah’s father.
And Isaiah said, This sign shalt thou have of the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he hath spoken: shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?9. shall the shadow go forward ten degrees [R.V. steps], or go back ten degrees] R.V. steps. In the Hebrew there is no sign of interrogation in the first clause. But instances are not rare in which the interrogative sign is left out (cf. 1 Samuel 16:4; 2 Samuel 18:29). A greater difficulty is in the tense of the first verb. The clause, if it stood alone, would be translated, ‘The shadow hath gone forward ten steps, (what) if it shall go back ten steps? But Hezekiah’s answer implies that an alternative question was asked. Thus both A.V. and R.V. have translated it, but how the grammar is to be made to yield a double question is not easy to see. For if the omitted interrogation be supplied, we have still only, ‘Hath the shadow gone forward ten steps?’
And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees.10. It is a light thing for the shadow to go down [R.V. decline] ten degrees] R.V. steps. The verb is not the same as that translated ‘to go down’ in verse 11. The king’s meaning is that it appears more natural and therefore easier, for the shadow to make a sudden advance in the direction in which it has been already going, than to turn in the contrary way.
let the shadow return backward ten degrees] R.V. steps. Thus reversing the order of nature.
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.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’.
At that time Berodachbaladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present unto Hezekiah: for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick.12–21. An embassy to Hezekiah from the king of Babylon. Isaiah’s message to Hezekiah. Death of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:25-33; Isaiah 39:1-8)
12. Berodach-baladan] The first part of the name is given as Merodach in Isaiah. This is the more correct form, but the interchange of the two labials is very easily made.
This king of Babylon is mentioned in the Assyrian inscriptions, as overthrown by Sargon the father of Sennacherib. He is said in the canon to have reigned 12 years, while Polyhistor gives him a brief reign of six months. It seems probable that both are correct. After the defeat by Sargon, at which time he had been king 12 years, he was for some years an exile, but afterwards finding means to recover his kingdom, he kept the power for a very brief space. Whether his embassy to Hezekiah is to be assigned to the longer or the shorter time of his kingship depends upon the date in Hezekiah’s life at which his sickness occurred. If, as some have conjectured, that event was before Sennacherib’s invasion the embassy must have been before Merodach’s expulsion: if Hezekiah’s disease followed after Sennacherib’s invasion, then the Babylonian embassy must be placed in the brief six months’ rule which Merodach had after his return. The date of Merodach’s expulsion is placed b.c. 709, his return to the throne b.c. 702.
and a present] This is in the original, minchah, a present intended to procure alliance and aid.
for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick] And probably had heard also of the wondrous sign which attended on his recovery. Whether the announcement of such a marvel would create special interest in Babylon the land of star-worship and star-study we can only conjecture. No doubt the congratulation on Hezekiah’s recovery was only used as a pretext for an embassy which should gain over Judah, if possible, to the side of Babylon.
And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and shewed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not.13. And Hezekiah hearkened unto them] In Isaiah we read he ‘was glad of them’, and there is no doubt that is the correct reading. The LXX. gives ἐχάρη, he rejoiced, in this passage. The difference in the Hebrew words is very slight. Here we have ישמצ, in Isaiah ישמח.
and shewed them all the house of his precious things] On the margin both A.V. and R.V. give ‘spicery’ instead of ‘precious things’; and the word (with a very slight difference of form) is used in that sense in Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11. But here as the house seems to have contained the various things which follow after, silver and gold as well as spices, perhaps the more general rendering is to be preferred. The storehouse which at first had its name from the aromatic treasures bestowed there, came in time to be used, without change of name, for the keeping of other things that were valuable.
precious ointment] R.V. oil. This is the more usual rendering. The stores would be of pure oil more likely than of manufactured ointment.
and all the house of his armour] R.V. omits ‘all’, which is not in the Hebrew text here, though it is in Isaiah. Hence the Massoretes have put it as a various reading on the margin of this verse.
The house of armour was no doubt ‘the house of the forest of Lebanon’, which Solomon built as an armoury, see notes on 1 Kings 7:2; 1 Kings 10:17.
nothing … that Hezekiah shewed them not] He was clearly desirous to produce an impression of his wealth and consequent power. This proud spirit the Chronicler (2 Chronicles 32:25) describes thus, ‘Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him: for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him and upon Judah and Jerusalem’.
Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from a far country, even from Babylon.14. What said these men?] Hezekiah does not answer this question. To tell of the proposals which had been made to him by the Babylonians, and of the remarks which had been called forth in praise of all that he had shewn them, would have provoked some reproach from God’s prophet, who was probably averse to any alliance with foreign and idolatrous powers, knowing that in Jehovah there was present help so long as His people trusted in Him only.
even from Babylon] Except as one of the places whence colonists were brought to occupy Samaria (2 Kings 17:24), Babylon has not before come into Jewish history. Soon it begins to figure largely, especially in the writings of the prophets, and at last becomes the victor of Jerusalem, and the scene of the long captivity of the two tribes.
And he said, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All the things that are in mine house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shewed them.15. All the things that are in mine house] R.V. all that is in mine house. The rendering of the same Hebrew in Isaiah. It has also the advantage of getting rid of the italics.
And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, Hear the word of the LORD.
Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried into Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the LORD.17. nothing shall be left] Though some few Jews remained behind among the ruins of the desolated city, nothing worth taking as booty was left behind. For a description of the overthrow and the plunder, see below 2 Kings 25:9-17.
And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.18. thy sons … shall they take away] This came to pass in the case of Manasseh, Hezekiah’s own son (2 Chronicles 33:11), who was carried as a prisoner to Babylon. That was, however, but the beginning of the sorrows to which this prophecy of Isaiah looked forward.
in the palace of the king of Babylon] Examples of Jews chosen for menial duties in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon are found in Daniel 1:6.
Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken. And he said, Is it not good, if peace and truth be in my days?19. Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken] Bp Hall takes these words of Hezekiah as uttered in a proper spirit. ‘The rod was smart, yet good Hezekiah kisses it. His heart struck him no less than the mouth of the prophet, meekly therefore doth he yield to this divine correction … God’s children are neither waspish nor sullen, when they are chid or beaten: but patiently hold their backs to the stripes of a displeased mercy: knowing how much more God is to be magnified for what He might have done than repined at for what He hath done’.
Some however have thought that the sentiment of the next sentence is too full of selfishness to accord with such a perfect character. The Chronicler however (2 Chronicles 32:26) speaks of the king’s humbling himself for his pride of heart.
Is it not good [R.V. so], if peace and truth be [R.V. shall be] in my days?] These words are spoken, as it seems, after reflection on the previous utterance, and seem to breathe a spirit of thankfulness mainly for the peace and security promised for Hezekiah’s own lifetime. That this would be granted is implied because the prophecy speaks only of the evils which should come upon his descendants.
And the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?20. And [R.V. Now] the rest of the acts of Hezekiah] The Chronicler enlarges somewhat on Hezekiah’s prosperity, ‘The Lord guided [the king and his people] on every side. And many brought gifts unto the Lord to Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah, so that he was magnified in the sight of all nations from thenceforth’. This may account for the abundance of treasure which was ready to be shewn to the Babylonian embassy.
all his might] He seems among other things to have had much cattle, which was one of the chief forms of wealth in those days. He had (2 Chronicles 32:28-29) ‘stalls for all manner of beasts, and cotes for flocks. Moreover he provided him cities, and possessions of flocks and herds in abundance: for God had given him substance very much’.
he made a [R.V. the] pool, and a [R.V. the] conduit] What Hezekiah did is more definitely described by the Chronicler. ‘He stopped’, it is said, ‘the upper water course of Gihon’. By this is most likely meant what the king did before the invasion of Sennacherib. In some way, by covering over, or diverting, he conveyed the waters of this spring into the city, and made a pool or reservoir to hold a supply for the city at a much lower level, in the valley between the two hills on which Jerusalem was mainly built. This operation the Chronicler describes by ‘he brought it (the water) straight down to the west side of the city of David’. This would be done by an underground passage.
in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah] The sources of Hezekiah’s history are called in 2 Chronicles ‘the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, and the book of the kings of Judah and Israel’. How far these are identical with what is meant by the verse before us is not clear. But from the history which is produced in the prophecy of Isaiah, we feel sure that there cannot have been much difference in the sources whence the accounts were derived, though the Chronicler has dwelt much more fully on the religious reforms of the king, than suited the plan of the compiler of Kings.
And Hezekiah slept with his fathers: and Manasseh his son reigned in his stead.21. Hezekiah slept with his fathers] The Chronicler adds ‘and they buried him in the chiefest (R.V. the ascent) of the sepulchres of the sons of David; and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did him honour at his death’. The change of rendering in the R.V. is necessary and shews us that it was not in the tombs of the kings that Hezekiah was buried, but in some place of an elevated character near thereto. From this time the kings of Judah are no longer laid in the tombs of the kings.