Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.XXXVIII.
(1) In those days.—On any supposition, the narrative of Hezekiah’s illness throws us back to a time fifteen years before his death, and therefore to an earlier date than the destruction of the Assyrian army, which it here follows. So in Isaiah 38:6, the deliverance of the city is spoken of as still future. Assuming the rectified chronology given above, we are carried to a time ten or eleven years before the invasion, which was probably in part caused by the ambitious schemes indicated in Isaiah 39. It follows from either view that we have no ground for assuming, as some commentators have done, (1) that the illness was an attack of the plague that destroyed the Assyrian army, or (2) that the treasures which Hezekiah showed to the Babylonian ambassadors were in part the spoil of that army.
Set thine house in order.—Literally, Give orders to thy house, euphemistic for “make thy will.” The words are a striking illustration, like Jonah’s announcement that Nineveh should be destroyed in three days (Jonah 3:4), of the conditional character of prophecy. It would seem as if Isaiah had been consulted half as prophet and half as physician as to the nature of the disease. It seemed to him fatal; it was necessary to prepare for death. The words may possibly imply a certain sense of disappointment at the result of Hezekiah’s reign. In the midst of the king’s magnificence and prosperity there was that in the inner house of the soul, as well as in that of the outer life, which required ordering.
Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD,(2) Turned his face toward the wall . . .—The royal couch was in the corner, as the Eastern place of honour, the face turned to it, as seeking privacy and avoiding the gaze of men. (Comp. Ahab in 1Kings 21:4.)
And said, Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, 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) Remember now, O Lord.—Devout as the prayer is, there is a tone of self-satisfaction in it which contrasts with David’s prayer (Psalm 51:1-3). He rests on what he has done in the way of religious reformation, and practically asks what he has done that he should be cut off by an untimely death. The tears may probably have been less egotistic than the words, and, therefore, were more prevailing.
Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.(5) Fifteen years.—The words fix the date of the illness, taking the received chronology, as B.C. 713. The next verse shows that there was danger at the time to be apprehended from Assyria, but does not necessarily refer to Sennacherib’s invasion. Sargon’s attack (Isaiah 20:1) may have caused a general alarm.
And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken;(7) This shall be a sign unto thee . . .—The offer reminds us of that made to Ahaz; but it was received in a far different spirit. In 2Kings 20:8-11 the story is more fully told. Hezekiah asks for a sign, and is offered his choice. Shall the shadow go forward or backward? With something of a child-like simplicity he chooses the latter, as the more difficult of the two. The sun-dial of Ahaz, probably, like his altar (2Kings 16:10), copied from Syrian or Assyrian art [the mention of a sun-clock is ascribed by Herodotus (ii. 109) to the Chaldæans], would seem to have been of the form of an obelisk standing on steps (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word for dial), and casting its shadow so as to indicate the time, each step representing an hour or half-hour. The nature of the phenomenon seems as curiously limited as that of the darkness of the crucifixion. There was no prolongation of the day in the rest of Palestine or Jerusalem, for the backward movement was limited to the step-dial. At Babylon no such phenomenon had been observed, and one ostensible purpose of Merôdach-baladan’s embassy was to investigate its nature (2Chronicles 32:31). An inquiry into the causation of a miracle is almost a contradiction in terms, but the most probable explanation of the fact recorded is that it was the effect of a supernatural, but exceedingly circumscribed, refraction. A prolonged after glow following on the sunset; and reviving for a time the brightness of the day, might produce an effect such as is described to one who gazed upon the step-dial.
The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness:(9) The writing of Hezekiah . . .—Isaiah 38:21-22 would seem to have their right place before the elegiac psalm that follows. The culture which the psalm implies is what might have been expected from one whom Isaiah had trained, who had restored and organised the worship of the Temple (2Chronicles 29:25-30), who spoke to Levites and soldiers as a preacher (2Chronicles 30:22; 2Chronicles 32:6), “speaking comfortably” (literally, to their heart), and who had directed the compilation of a fresh set of the proverbs ascribed to Solomon (Proverbs 25:1). It will be seen, as we go through the hymn, that it presents echoes of the Book of Job as well as of the earlier Psalms.
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.(10) I said in the cutting off of my days . . .—The words have been very differently interpreted—(1) “in the quietness,” and so in the even tenor of a healthy life. As a fact, however, the complaint did not, and could not, come in the “quiet” of his life, but after it had passed away; (2) “in the dividing point,” scil., the “half-way house of life.” Hezekiah was thirty-nine, but the word might rightly be used of the years between thirty-five and forty, which were the moieties of the seventy and eighty years of the psalmist (Psalm 90:10). We are reminded of Dante’s “Nel mezza del cammin di nostra vita” (Inf. i. 1).
The gates of the grave.—The image is what we should call Dantesque. Sheol, the Hades of the Hebrews, is, as in the Assyrian representations of the unseen world, and as in the Inferno of Dante (iii. 11, vii. 2, x. 22), a great city, and, therefore, it has its gates, which again become, as with other cities, the symbol of its power. So we have “gates of death” in Job 38:17; Psalm 9:18; Psalm 107:18.
The residue . . .—The words assume a normal duration, say of seventy years, on which the sufferer, who had, as he thought, done nothing to deserve punishment, might have legitimately counted.
I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.(11) I shall not see the Lord . . .—The words are eminently characteristic of the cheerless dimness of the Hebrew’s thoughts of death. To St. Paul and those who share his faith death is to “depart, and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23), to be “ever with the Lord” (1Thessalonians 4:17). To Hezekiah, it would seem, the outward worship of the Temple, or possibly, the consciousness of God’s presence in the full activity of brain and heart, was a joy which he could not bear to lose. The spiritual perceptions of the life after death would be spectral and shadowy, like the dead themselves. (Comp. the Greek idea of Hades in Homer (Od. xi. 12-19). It may be noted that the Hebrew for “the Lord” is the shorter, possibly the poetical, form “Jah” (as in Psalm 68:4). The LXX paraphrases “I shall not see the salvation of God.”
Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.(12) Mine age is departed . . .—Better, my home, or habitation . . . as in Psalm 49:19, and thus fitting in better with the similitude that follows. The “home” is, of course, the body, as the dwelling-place of the spirit. (Comp. Psalm 52:5, “hurl thee away tentless,” Heb., and Job 21:28, “Is not their tent-cord torn away?” Heb.) The “shepherd’s tent” is the type of a transitory home (2Corinthians 5:1-4).
I have cut off like a weaver my life . . .—The words express the feeling of one who had been weaving the web of his life with varied plans and counsels (comp. Isaiah 30:1), and now had to roll it up, as finished before its time, because Jehovah had taken up the “abhorred shears” to cut it from the thrum, which takes the place of “with pining sickness.” There is, perhaps, a tone of reverence in the impersonal form of the statement. The sufferer will not name Jehovah as the author of his trouble.
From day even to night.—The words speak of the rapidity rather than of the prolongation of suffering. The sick man expects that death will come before the morrow’s dawn.
I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.(13) I reckoned till morning . . .—Better, I quieted myself, as in Psalm 131:2. He threw himself into the calm submission of the weaned child; yet when the morning came there was a fresh access of suffering. Life had been prolonged, contrary to his expectations; but it was only for renewed agony. Surely that would end his sufferings.
Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.(14) Like a crane . . .—The three birds—strictly, the “swift,” the “crane,” the “dove”—each with its special note of lamentation, represent, as it were, the cries of pain and the low suppressed wail of the sufferer. The three appear again together in Jeremiah 8:7.
Undertake for me—i.e., as in Genesis 43:9; Genesis 44:32; Job 17:3, Be surety for me. The idea is that of Death, who, yet in another sense, is but the minister of Jehovah, as being the creditor pressing for immediate payment. The words involve (as Cheyne points out) something like an appeal to the judge, who is also the accuser, to be bail for the accused.
What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.(15) What shall I say?—With the same force as in 2Samuel 7:20; Hebrews 11:32. Words fail to express the wonder and the gratitude of the sufferer who has thus been rescued for the fulfilment which followed so immediately on the promise.
I shall go softly . . .—Better, That I should walk at ease upon (i.e., because of, or, as others take it, in spite of) the trouble of my soul. The verb is used in Psalm 42:4 of a festal procession to the Temple, but here refers simply to the journey of life, and implies that it is to be carried on to the end as with calm and considerate steps. The Authorised Version suggests wrongly the thought of a life-long bitterness.
O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.(16) By these things . . .—i.e., by the word of God and the performance which fulfils it. For “in all these things,” read wholly through them. The words remind us of Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man doth not live by bread alone . . .”
Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.(17) For peace I had great bitterness . . .—The words in the Authorised Version read like a retrospect of the change from health to suffering. Really, they express the very opposite. It was for my peace (i.e., for my salvation, in the fullest sense of the word) that it was bitter, was bitter unto me (emphasis of iteration). All things were now seen as “working together for good.”
Thou hast in love to my soul . . .—The italics show that the verbs “delivered it “are not in the present Hebrew text. A slight change, such as might be made to correct an error of transcription, would give that meaning, but as it stands, we have the singularly suggestive phrase, Thou hast loved me out of the pit of corruption. The very love of Jehovah is thought of as ipso facto a deliverance.
Thou hast cast all my sins . . .—As in our Lord’s miracles, the bodily healing was the pledge and earnest of the spiritual. “Arise and walk” guaranteed, “Thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matthew 9:2-5). (For the symbols of that forgiveness, comp. Micah 7:19.)
For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.(18) For the grave . . .—i.e., Sheol, or Hades. We return to the king’s thoughts of the dim shadow-world, Death and Sheol (joined together, as in Isaiah 28:15; Psalm 6:5). In that region of dimness there are no psalms of thanksgiving, no loud hallelujahs. The thought of spiritual energies developed and intensified after death is essentially one which belongs to the “illuminated” immortality (2Timothy 1:10), of Christian thought. (Comp. Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:9; Psalm 88:11-12; Psalm 115:17; Ecclesiastes 9:4-5; Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.(19) The father to the children . . .—The words are perfectly general, but they receive a special significance from the fact that Hezekiah’s son and successor, Manasseh, who was only twelve years old at his father’s death (2Kings 21:1), was not born till two or three years afterwards. At the time of his illness the king may still have been childless, and the thought that there was no son to take his place may have added bitterness to his grief. “Thy truth,” has here the sense of “faithfulness” rather than of the truth about God which is the object of belief.
The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.(20) Was ready.—Better, as fitting in with the praise and hope of the close of the prayer, is ready.
We will sing.—The king identifies himself with the great congregation, perhaps even yet more closely with the Levite minstrels of the Temple whom he had done so much to train and re-organise.
For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaister upon the boil, and he shall recover.(21) For Isaiah had said . . .—The direction implies some medical training on the part of Isaiah (see Note on Isaiah 1:6, and Introduction), such as entered naturally into the education of the prophet-priests. They were to Israel, especially in the case of leprosy and other kindred diseases, what the priests of Asclepios were to Greece. The Divine promise guaranteed success to the use of natural remedies, but did not dispense with them, and they, like the spittle laid on the eyes of the blind in the Gospel miracles (Mark 7:33, John 9:6), were also a help to the faith on which the miracle depended. Both this and the following verse seem, as has been said, to have been notes to Isaiah 38:8, supplied from the narrative of 2 Kings 20, and placed at the end of the chapter instead of at the foot of the page, as in modern MSS. or print. The word for “boil” appears in connection with leprosy in Exodus 9:9, Leviticus 13:18, but is used generically for any kind of abscess, carbuncle, and the like. (Comp. Job 2:7.)