Isaiah 38
Expositor's Bible Commentary
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.
-25BOOK 4


701 B.C.

INTO this fourth book we put all the rest of the prophecies of the Book of Isaiah, that have to do with the prophet’s own time: chapters 1, 22 and 33, with the narrative in 36, 37. All these refer to the only Assyrian invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem: that undertaken by Sennacherib in 701.

It is, however, right to remember once more, that many authorities maintain that there were two Assyrian invasions of Judah-one by Sargon in 711, the other by Sennacherib in 701-and that chapters 1 and 22 (as well as Isaiah 10:5-34) belong to the former of these. The theory is ingenious and tempting; but, in the silence of the Assyrian annals about any invasion of Judah by Sargon, it is impossible to adopt it. And although Chapters 1 and 22 differ very greatly in tone from chapter 33, yet to account for the difference it is not necessary to suppose two different invasions, with a considerable period between them. Virtually, as will appear in the course of our exposition, Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah was a double one.

1. The first time Sennacherib’s army invaded Judah they took all the fenced cities, and probably invested Jerusalem, but withdrew on payment of tribute and the surrender of the casus belli, the Assyrian Vassal Padi, whom the Ekronites had deposed and given over to the keeping of Hezekiah. To this invasion refer Isaiah 1:1-31; Isaiah 22:1-25. and the first verse of 36.: "Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that Sennacherib, King of Assyria, came up against all the fenced cities of Judah and took them." This verse is the same as 2 Kings 18:13, to which, however, there is added in 2 Kings 18:14-16 an account of the tribute sent by Hezekiah to Sennacherib at Lachish, that is not included in the narrative in Isaiah. Compare 2 Chronicles 32:1.

2. But scarcely had the tribute been paid when Sennacherib, himself advancing to meet Egypt, sent back upon Jerusalem a second army of investment, with which was the Rabshakeh; and this was the army that so mysteriously disappeared from the eyes of the besieged. To the treacherous return of the Assyrians and the sudden deliverance of Jerusalem from their grasp refer Isaiah 33:1-24, Isaiah 36:2-22, with the fuller and evidently original narrative in 2 Kings 18:17-19. Compare 2 Chronicles 32:9-23.

To the history of this double attempt upon Jerusalem in 701-chapters 36 and 37 - there has been appended in 38 and 3 an account of Hezekiah’s illness and of an embassy to him from Babylon. These events probably happened some years before Sennacherib’s invasion. But it will be most convenient for us to take them in the order in which they stand in the canon. They wilt naturally lead us up to a question that it is necessary we should discuss before taking leave of Isaiah-whether this great prophet of the endurance of the kingdom of God upon earth had any gospel for the individual who dropped away from it into death.



720-705 13. B.C.

Isaiah 20:1-6; Isaiah 21:1-10; Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8FROM 720, when chapter 11 may have been published, to 705-or, by rough reckoning, from the fortieth to the fifty-fifth year of Isaiah’s life-we cannot be sure that we have more than one prophecy from him; but two narratives have found a place in his book which relate events that must have taken place between 712 and 705. These narratives are chapter 20: How Isaiah Walked Stripped and Barefoot for a Sign against Egypt, and chapters 38 and 39: The Sickness of Hezekiah, with the Hymn he wrote, and his behaviour before the envoys from Babylon. The single prophecy belonging to this period is Isaiah 21:1-10, "Oracle of the Wilderness of the Sea," which announces the fall of Babylon. There has been considerable debate about the authorship of this oracle, but Cheyne, mainly following Dr. Kleinert, gives substantial reasons for leaving it with Isaiah. We postpone the full exposition of chapters 38 and 39 to a later stage, as here it would only interrupt the history. But we will make use of chapters 20 and Isaiah 21:1-10 in the course of the following historical sketch, which is intended to connect the first great period of Isaiah’s prophesying, 740-720, with the second, 705-701.

All these fifteen years, 720-705, Jerusalem was drifting to the refuge into which she plunged at the end of them-drifting to Egypt. Ahaz had firmly bound his people to Assyria, and in his reign there was no talk of an Egyptian alliance. But in 725, when the "overflowing scourge" of Assyrian invasion threatened to sweep into Judah as well as Samaria, Isaiah’s words give us some hint of a recoil in the politics of Jerusalem towards the southern power. The "covenants with death and hell," which the men of scorn flaunted in his face as he harped on the danger from Assyria, may only have been the old treaties with Assyria herself, but the "falsehood and lies" that went with them were most probably intrigues with Egypt. Any Egyptian policy, however, that may have formed in Jerusalem before 719, was entirely discredited by the crushing defeat, which in that year Sargon inflicted upon the empire of the Nile, almost on her own borders, at Rafia.

Years of quietness for Palestine followed this decisive battle. Sargon, whose annals engraved on the great halls of Khorsabad enable us to read the history of the period year by year, tells us that his next campaigns were to the north of his empire, and till 711 he alludes to Palestine only to say that tribute was coming in regularly, or to mention the deportation to Hamath or Samaria of some tribe he had conquered far away. Egypt, however, was everywhere busy among his feudatories. Intrigue was Egypt’s forte. She is always represented in Isaiah’s pages as the talkative power of many promises. Her fair speech was very sweet to men groaning beneath the military pressure of Assyria. Her splendid past, in conjunction with the largeness of her promise, excited the popular imagination. Centres of her influence gathered in every state. An Egyptian party formed in Jerusalem. Their intrigue pushed mines in all directions, and before the century was out the Assyrian peace in Western Asia was broken by two great explosions. The first of these, in 711, was local and abortive: the second, in 705, was universal, and for a time entirely destroyed the Assyrian supremacy.

The centre of the Explosion of 711 was Ashdod, a city of the Philistines. The king had suddenly refused to continue the Assyrian tribute, and Sargon had put another king in his place.

But the people-in Ashdod, as everywhere else, it was the people who were fascinated by Egypt-pulled down the Assyrian puppet and elevated Iaman, a friend to Pharaoh. The other cities of the Philistines, with Moab, Edom, and Judah, were prepared by Egyptian promise to throw in their lot with the rebels. Sargon gave them no time. "In the wrath of my heart, I did not divide my army, and I did not diminish the ranks, but I marched against Asdod with my warriors, who did not separate themselves from the traces of my sandals. I besieged, I took, Asdod and Gunt-Asdodim . . . I then made again these towns. I placed the people whom my arm had conquered. I put over them my lieutenant as governor. I considered them like Assyrians, and they practised obedience." It is upon this campaign of Sargon that Mr. Cheyne argues for the invasion of Judah, to which he assigns so many of Isaiah’s prophecies, as, e.g., chapters 1 and Isaiah 10:5-34. Some day Assyriology may give us proof of this supposition. We are without it just now. Sargon speaks no word of invading Judah, and the only part of the book of Isaiah that unmistakably refers to this time is the picturesque narrative of chapter 20.

In this we are told that "in the year" the Tartan, the Assyrian commander-in-chief, "came to Ashdod when Sargon king of Assyria sent him" [that is to be supposed the year of the first revolt in Ashdod, to which Sargon himself did not come], "and he fought against Ashdod and took it:-in that time Jehovah had spoken by the hand of Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth," the prophet’s robe, "from off thy loins, and thy sandal strip from off thy foot; and he did so, walking naked," that is unfrocked, "and barefoot." For Egyptian intrigue was already busy; the temporary success of the Tartan at Ashdod did not discourage it, and it needed a protest. "And Jehovah said, As My servant Isaiah hath walked unfrocked and barefoot three years for a sign and a portent against Egypt and against Ethiopia" [note the double name, for the country was now divided between two rulers, the secret of her impotence to interfere forcibly in Palestine] "so shall the king of Assyria lead away the captives of Egypt and exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, stripped and barefoot, and with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. And they shall be dismayed and ashamed, because of Ethiopia their expectation and because of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitant of this coastland" [that is, all Palestine, and a name for it remarkably similar to the phrase used by Sargon, "the people of Philistia, Judah, Edom, and Moab, dwelling by the sea"] "shall say in that day, Behold, such is our expectation, whither we had fled for help to deliver ourselves from the king of Assyria, and how shall we escape-we?"

This parade of Isaiah for three years, unfrocked and barefoot, is another instance of that habit on which we remarked in connection with Isaiah 8:1 : the habit of finally carrying everything committed to him before the bar of the whole nation. It was to the mass of the people God said, "Come and let us reason together." Let us not despise Isaiah in his shirt any more than we do Diogenes in his tub, or with a lantern in his hand, seeking for a man by its rays at noonday. He was bent on startling the popular conscience, because he held it true that a people’s own morals have greater influence on their destinies than the policies of their statesmen. But especially anxious was Isaiah, as we shall again see from chapter 31, to bring, this Egyptian policy home to the popular conscience. Egypt was a big-mouthed, blustering power, believed in by the mob; to expose her required public, picturesque, and persistent advertisement. So Isaiah continued his walk for three years. The fall of Ashdod, left by Egypt to itself, did not disillusion the Jews, and the rapid disappearance of Sargon to another part of his empire where there was trouble, gave the Egyptians audacity to continue their intrigues against him.

Sargon’s new trouble had broken out in Babylon, and was much more serious than any revolt in Syria. Merodach Baladan, king of Chaldea, was no ordinary vassal, but as dangerous a rival as Egypt. When he rose, it meant a contest between Babylon and Nineveh for the sovereignty of the world. He had long been preparing for war. He had an alliance with Elam, and the tribes of Mesopotamia were prepared for his signal of revolt. Among the charges brought him by Sargon is that, "against the will of the gods of Babylon, he had sent during twelve years ambassadors." One of these embassies may have been that which came to Hezekiah after his great sickness (chapter 39). "And Hezekiah was glad of them, and showed them the house of his spicery, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, 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 showed them not." Isaiah was indignant. He had hitherto kept the king from formally closing with Egypt; now he found him eager for an alliance with another of the powers of man. But instead of predicting the captivity of Babylon, as he predicted the captivity of Egypt, by the hand of Assyria, Isaiah declared, according to chapter 39, that Babylon would some day take Israel captive; and Hezekiah had to content himself with the prospect that this calamity was not to happen in his time.

Isaiah’s prediction of the exile of Israel to Babylon is a matter of difficulty. The difficulty, however, is not that of conceiving how he could have foreseen an event which took place more than a century later. Even in 711 Babylon was not an unlikely competitor for the supremacy of the nations. Sargon himself felt that it was a crisis to meet her. Very little might have transferred the seat of power from the Tigris to the Euphrates. What, therefore, more probable than that when Hezekiah disclosed to these envoys the whole state of his resources, and excused himself by saying "that they were come from a far country, even Babylon," Isaiah, seized by a strong sense of how near Babylon stood to the throne of the nations, should laugh to scorn the excuse of distance, and tell the king that his anxiety to secure an alliance had only led him to place the temptation to rob him more in the face of a power that was certainly on the way to be able to do it? No, the difficulty is not that the prophet foretold a captivity of the Jews in Babylon, but that we cannot reconcile what he says of that captivity with his intimation of the immediate destruction of Babylon, which has come down to us in Isaiah 21:1-10.

In this prophecy Isaiah regards Babylon as he has been regarding Egypt-certain to go down before Assyria, and therefore wholly unprofitable to Judah. If the Jews still thought of returning to Egypt when Sargon hurried back from completing her discomfiture in order to beset Babylon, Isaiah would tell them it was no use. Assyria has brought her full power to bear on the Babylonians; Elam and Media are with her. He travails with pain for the result. Babylon is not expecting a siege; but "preparing the table, eating and drinking," when suddenly the cry rings through her, "‘Arise, ye princes; anoint the shield.’ The enemy is upon us." So terrible and so sudden a warrior is this Sargon! At his words nations move; when he saith, "Go up, O Elam! Besiege, O Media!" it is done. And he falls upon his foes before their weapons are ready. Then the prophet shrinks back from the result of his imagination of how it happened-for that is too painful-upon the simple certainty, which God revealed to him, that it must happen. As surely as Sargon’s columns went against Babylon, so surely must the message return that Babylon has fallen. Isaiah puts it this way. The Lord bade him get on his watchtower-that is his phrase for observing the signs of the times-and speak whatever he saw. And he saw a military column on the march: "a troop of horsemen by pairs, a troop of asses, a troop of camels." It passed him out of sight, "and he hearkened very diligently" for news. But none came. It was a long campaign. "And he cried like a lion" for impatience, "O my Lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower by day, and am set in my ward every night." Till at last, "behold, there came a troop of men, horsemen in pairs, and" now "one answered and said, Fallen, fallen is Babylon, and all the images of her gods he hath broken to the ground." The meaning of this very elliptical passage is just this: as surely as the prophet saw Sargon’s columns go out against Babylon, so sure was he of her fall. Turning to his Jerusalem, he Says, "My own threshed one, son of my floor, that which I have heard from Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you." How gladly would I have told you otherwise! But this is His message and His will. Everything must go down before this Assyrian.

Sargon entered Babylon before the year was out, and with her conquest established his fear once more down to the borders of Egypt. In his lifetime neither Judah nor her neighbours attempted again to revolt. But Egypt’s intrigue did not cease. Her mines were once more laid, and the feudatories of Assyria only waited for their favourite opportunity, a change of tyrants on the throne of Nineveh. This came very soon. In the fifteenth year of his reign, having finally established his empire, Sargon inscribed on the palace at Khorsabad the following prayer to Assur: "May it be that I, Sargon, who inhabit this palace, may be preserved by destiny during long years for a long life, for the happiness of my body, for the satisfaction of my heart, and may I arrive to my end! May I accumulate in this palace immense treasures, the booties of all countries, the products of mountains and valleys!" The god did not hear. A few months later, in 705, Sargon was murdered; and before Sennacherib, his successor, sat down on the throne, the whole of Assyrian supremacy in the southwest of Asia went up in the air. It was the second of the great Explosions we spoke of, and the rest of Isaiah’s prophecies are concerned with its results.




Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8To the great national drama of Jerusalem’s deliverance, there have been added two scenes of a personal kind, relating to her king. Chapters 38 and 39 are the narrative of the sore sickness and recovery of King Hezekiah, and of the embassy which Merodach-Baladan sent him, and how he received the embassy. The date of these events is difficult to determine. If, with Canon Cheyne, we believe in an invasion of Judah by Sargon in 711, we shall be tempted to refer them, as he does, to that date-the more so that the promise of fifteen additional years made to Hezekiah in 711, the fifteenth year of his reign, would bring it up to the twenty-nine, at which it is set in 2 Kings 18:2. That, however, would flatly contradict the statement both of Isaiah 38:1 and 2 Kings 20:1. that Hezekiah’s sickness fell in the days of the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib; that is, after 705. But to place the promise of fifteen additional years to Hezekiah after 705, when we know he had been reigning for at least twenty years, would be to contradict the verse, just cited, which sums up the years of his reign as twenty-nine. This is, in fact, one of the instances in which we must admit our present inability to elucidate the chronology of this portion of the book of Isaiah. Mr. Cheyne thinks the editor mistook the siege by Sennacherib for the siege by Sargon. But as the fact of a siege by Sargon has never been satisfactorily established, it seems safer to trust the statement that Hezekiah’s sickness occurred in the reign of Sennacherib, and to allow that there has been an error somewhere in the numbering of the years. It is remarkable that the name of Merodach-Baladan does not help us to decide between the two dates. There was a Merodach-Baladan in rebellion against Sargon in 710, and there was one in rebellion against Sennacherib in 705. It has not yet been put past doubt as to whether these two are the same. The essential is that there was a Merodach-Baladan alive, real or only claimant king of Babylon, about 705, and that he was likely at that date to treat with Hezekiah, being himself in revolt against Assyria. Unable to come to any decision about the conflicting numbers, we leave uncertain the date of the events recounted in chapters 38 and 39. The original form of the narrative, but wanting Hezekiah’s hymn, is given in 2 Kings 20:1-21.

We have given to this chapter the title "An Old Testament Believer’s Sickbed; or, The Difference Christ has made," not because this is the only spiritual suggestion of the story, but because it seems to the present expositor as if this were the predominant feeling left in Christian minds after reading for us the story. In Hezekiah’s conduct there is much of courage for us to admire, as there are other elements to warn us; but when we have read the whole story, we find ourselves saying, What a difference Christ has made to me! Take Hezekiah from two points of view, and then let the narrative itself bring out this difference.

Here is a man, who, although he lived more than twenty-five centuries ago, is brought quite close to our side. Death, who herds all men into his narrow fold, has crushed this Hebrew king so close to us that we can feel his very heart beat. Hezekiah’s hymn gives us entrance into the fellowship of his sufferings. By the figures he so skilfully uses he makes us feel that pain, the shortness of life, the suddenness of death, and the utter blackness beyond were to him just what they are to us. And yet this kinship in pain, and fear, and ignorance only makes us the more aware of something else which we have and he has not.

Again, here is a man to whom religion gave all it could give without the help of Christ; a believer in the religion out of which Christianity sprang, perhaps the most representative Old Testament believer we could find, for Hezekiah was at once the collector of what was best in its literature and the reformer of what was worst in its worship; a man permeated by the past piety of his Church, and enjoying as his guide and philosopher the boldest prophet who ever preached the future developments of its spirit. Yet when we put Hezekiah and all that Isaiah can give him on one side, we shall again feel for ourselves on the other what a difference Christ has made.

This difference a simple study of the narrative will make clear.


"In those days Hezekiah became sick unto death." They were critical days for Judah-no son born to the king, {2 Kings 21:1} the work of reformation in Judah not yet consolidated, the big world tossing in revolution all around. Under God, everything depended on an experienced ruler; and this one, without a son to succeed him, was drawing near to death. We will therefore judge Hezekiah’s strong passion for life to have been patriotic as well as selfish. He stood in the midtime of his days, with a faithfully executed work behind him and so good an example of kinghood that for years Isaiah had not expressed his old longing for the Messiah. The Lord had counted Hezekiah righteous; that twin-sign had been given him which more than any other assured an Israelite of Jehovah’s favour-a good conscience and success in his work. Well, therefore, might he cry when Isaiah brought him the sentence of death, "Ah, now, Jehovah, remember, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thine eyes. And Hezekiah wept with a great weeping."

There is difficulty in the strange story which follows. The dial was probably a pyramid of steps on the top of which stood a short pillar or obelisk. When the sun rose in the morning. the shadow cast by the pillar would fall right down the western side of the pyramid to the bottom of the lowest step. As the sun ascended the shadow would shorten, and creep up inch by inch to the foot of the pillar. After noon, as the sun began to descend to the west, the shadow would creep down the eastern steps; and the steps were so measured that each one marked a certain degree of time. It was probably afternoon when Isaiah visited the king. The shadow was going down according to the regular law; the sign consisted in causing the Shadow to shrink up the steps again. Such a reversal of the ordinary progress of the shadow may have been caused in either of two ways: by the whole earth being thrown back on its axis, which we may dismiss as impossible, or by the occurrence of the phenomenon known as refraction. Refraction is a disturbance in the atmosphere by which the rays of the sun are bent or deflected from their natural course into an angular one. In this case, instead of shooting straight over the top of the obelisk, the rays of the sun had been bent down and inward, so that the shadow fled up to the foot of the obelisk. There are many things in the air which might cause this; it is a phenomenon often observed; and the Scriptural narratives imply that on this occasion it was purely local. {2 Chronicles 32:31} Had we only the narrative in the book of Isaiah, the explanation would have been easy. Isaiah, having given the sentence of death, passed the dial in the palace courtyard, and saw the shadow lying ten degrees farther up than it should have done, the sight of which coincided with the inspiration that the king would not die; and Isaiah went back to announce to Hezekiah his reprieve, and naturally call his attention to this as a sign, to which a weak and desponding man would be glad to cling. But the original narrative in the book of Kings tells us that Isaiah offered Hezekiah a choice of signs: that the shadow should either advance or retreat, and that the king chose the latter. The sign came in answer to Isaiah’s prayer, and is narrated to us as a special Divine interposition. But a medicine accompanied it, and Hezekiah recovered through a poultice of figs laid on the boil from which he suffered.

While recognising for our own faith the uselessness of a discussion on this sign offered to a sick man, let us not miss the moral lessons of so touching a narrative, nor the sympathy, with the sick king which it is fitted to produce, and which is our best introduction to the study of his hymn.

Isaiah had performed that most awful duty of doctor or minister-the telling of a friend that he must die. Few men have not in their personal experience a key to the prophet’s feelings on this occasion. The leaving of a dear friend for the last time; the coming out into the sunlight which he will nevermore share with us; the passing by the dial; the observation of the creeping shadow; the feeling that it is only a question of time; the passion of prayer into which that feeling throws us that God may be pleased to put off the hour and spare our friend; the invention, that is born, like prayer, of necessity: a cure we suddenly remember; the confidence which prayer and invention bring between them; the return with the joyful news; the giving of the order about the remedy-cannot many in their degree rejoice with Isaiah in such an experience? But he has, too, a conscience of God and God’s work to which none of us may pretend: he knows how-indispensable to that work his royal pupil is, and out of this inspiration he prophesies the will of the Lord that Hezekiah shall recover.

Then the king, with a sick man’s sacramental longing, asks a sign. Out through the window the courtyard is visible; there stands the same step-dial of Ahaz, the long pillar on the top of the steps, the shadow creeping down them through the warm afternoon sunshine. To the sick man it must have been like the finger of death coming nearer. "Shall the shadow," asks the prophet, "go forward ten steps or go back ten steps? It is easy," says the king, alarmed, "for the shadow to go down ten steps." Easy for it to go down! Has he not been feeling that all the afternoon? "Do not," we can fancy him saying, with the gasp of a man who has been watching its irresistible descent-"do not let that black thing come farther; but ‘let the shadow go backward ten steps."’

The shadow returned, and Hezekiah got his sign. But when he was well, he used it for more than a sign. He read a great spiritual lesson in it. The time, which upon the dial had been apparently thrown back, had in his life been really thrown back; and God had given him his years to live over again.

The past was to be as if it had never been, its guilt and weakness wiped out. "Thou hast cast behind Thy back all my sins." As a new born child Hezekiah felt himself uncommitted by the past, not a sin’s-doubt nor a sin’s-cowardice in him, with the heart of a little child, but yet with the strength and dignity of a grown man, for it is the magic of tribulation to bring innocence with experience. "I shall go softly," or literally, "with dignity or caution, as in a procession, all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, upon such things do men live; and altogether in them is the life of my spirit. Behold, for perfection was it bitter to me, so bitter." And through it all there breaks a new impression of God. "What shall I say? He hath both spoken with me, and Himself hath done it." As if afraid to impute his profits to the mere experience itself, "In them is the life of my spirit," he breaks in with "Yea, Thou hast recovered me; yea, Thou hast made me to live." And then, by a very pregnant construction, he adds, "Thou hast loved my soul out of the pit of destruction"; that is, of course, "loved, and by Thy love lifted," but he uses the one word "loved," and gives it the active force of "drawing" or "lifting." In this lay the head and glory of Hezekiah’s experience. He was a religious man, an enthusiast for the Temple services, and had all his days as his friend the prophet whose heart was with the heart of God; but it was not through any of these means God came near him, not till he lay sick and had turned his face to the wall. Then indeed he cried, "What shall I say? He hath both spoken with me, and Himself hath done it!"

Forgiveness, a new peace, a new dignity, and a visit from the living God! Well might Hezekiah exclaim that it was only through a near sense of death that men rightly learned to live. "Ah, Lord, it is upon these things that men live; and wholly therein is the life of my spirit." It is by these things men live, and therein I have learned for the first time what life is!

In all this at least we cannot go beyond Hezekiah, and he stands an example to the best Christian among us. Never did a man bring richer harvest from the fields of death. Everything that renders life really life-peace, dignity, a new sense of God and of His forgiveness-these were the spoils which Hezekiah won in his struggle with the grim enemy. He had snatched from death a new meaning for life; he had robbed death of its awful pomp, and bestowed this on careless life. Hereafter he should walk with the step and the mien of a conqueror-"I shall go in solemn procession all my years because of the bitterness of my soul"-or with the carefulness of a worshipper, who sees at the end of his course the throne of the Most High God, and makes all his life an ascent thither.

This is the effect which every great sorrow and struggle has upon a noble soul. Come to the streets of the living. Who are these, whom we. can so easily distinguish from the crowd by their firmness of step and look of peace, walking softly where some spurt and some halt, holding, without rest or haste, the tenor of their way, as if they marched to music heard by their ears alone? These are they which have come out of great tribulation. They have brought back into time the sense of eternity. They know how near the invisible worlds lie to this one, and the sense of the vast silences stills all idle laughter in their hearts. The life that is to other men chance or sport, strife or hurried flight, has for them its allotted distance, is for them a measured march, a constant worship. "For the bitterness of their soul they go in procession all their years." Sorrow’s subjects, they are our kings; wrestlers with death, our veterans: and to the rabble armies of society they set the step of a nobler life.

Count especially the young man blessed, who has looked into the grave before he has faced the great temptations of the world, and has not entered the race of life till he has learned his stride in the race with death. They tell us that on the outside of civilisation, where men carry their lives in their hands, a most thorough politeness and dignity are bred, in spite of the want of settled habits, by the sense of danger alone; and we know how battle and a deadly climate, pestilence or the perils of the sea have sent back to us the most careless of our youth with a self-possession and regularity of mind, that it would have been hopeless to expect them to develop amid the trivial trials of village life.

But the greatest duty of us men is not to seek nor to pray for such combats with death. It is-when God has found these for us to remain true to our memories of them. The hardest duty of life is to remain true to our psalms of deliverance, as it is certainly life’s greatest temptation to fall away from the sanctity of sorrow, and suffer the stately style of one who knows how near death hovers to his line of march to degenerate into the broken step of a wanton life. This was Hezekiah’s temptation, and this is why the story of his fall in the thirty-ninth chapter is placed beside his vows in the thirty-eighth-to warn us how easy it is for those who have come conquerors out of a struggle with death to fall a prey to common life. He had said, "I will walk softly all my years"; but how arrogantly and rashly he carried himself when Merodach-Baladan sent the embassy to congratulate him on his recovery. It was not with the dignity, of the veteran, but with a childish love of display, perhaps also with the too restless desire to secure an alliance, that he showed the envoys "his storehouse, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and all the house of his armour and all that was found in his treasures. There was nothing which Hezekiah did not show them in his house nor in all his dominion." In this behaviour there was neither caution nor sobriety, and we cannot doubt but that Hezekiah felt the shame of it when Isaiah sternly rebuked him and threw upon all his house the dark shadow of captivity.

It is easier to win spoils from death than to keep them untarnished by life. Shame burns warm in a soldier’s heart when he sees the arms he risked life to win rusting for want of a little care. Ours will not burn less if we discover that the strength of character we brought with us out of some great tribulation has been slowly weakened by subsequent self-indulgence or vanity. How awful to have fought for character with death only to squander it upon life! It is well to keep praying, "My God, suffer me not to forget my bonds and my bitterness. In my hours of wealth and ease, and health and peace, by the memory of Thy judgments deliver me, good Lord."


So far then Hezekiah is an example and warning to us all. With all our faith in Christ, none of us, in the things mentioned, may hope to excel this Old Testament believer. But notice very particularly that Hezekiah’s faith and fortitude are profitable only for this life. It is-when we begin to think, What of the life to come? that we perceive the infinite difference Christ has made.

We know what Hezekiah felt when his back was turned on death, and he came up to life again. But what did he feel when he faced the other way, and his back was to life? With his back to life and facing deathwards, Hezekiah saw nothing, that was worth hoping for. To him to die was to leave God behind him, to leave the face of God as surely as he was leaving the face of man. "I said, I shall not see Jah, Jah in the land of the living; I shall gaze upon man no more with the inhabitants of the world." The beyond was not to Hezekiah absolute nothingness, for he had his conceptions, the popular conceptions of his time, of a sort of existence that was passed by those who had been men upon earth. The imagination of his people figured the gloomy portals of a nether world - Sheol, the Hollow (Dante’s "hollow realm"), or perhaps the Craving- into which death herds the shades of men, bloodless, voiceless, without love or hope or aught that makes life worth living. With such an existence beyond, to die to life here was to Hezekiah like as when "a weaver rolls up" the finished web. My life may be a pattern for others to copy, a banner for others to fight under, but for me it is finished. Death has cut it from the loom. Or it was like going into captivity. "Mine age is removed and is carried away from me into exile, like a shepherd’s tent"-exile which to a Jew was the extreme of despair, implying as it did absence from God and salvation and the possibility of worship. "Sheol cannot praise Thee; death cannot celebrate Thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy faithfulness."

Of this then at the best Hezekiah was sure: a respite of fifteen years-nothing beyond. Then the shadow would not return upon the dial; and as the king’s eyes closed upon the dear faces of his friends, his sense of the countenance of God would die too, and his soul slip into the abyss, hopeless of God’s faithfulness.

It is this awful anticlimax which makes us feel the difference Christ has made. This saint stood in almost the clearest light that revelation cast before Jesus. He was able to perceive in suffering a meaning and derive from it a strength not to be exceeded by any Christian. Yet his faith is profitable for this life alone. For him character may wrestle with death over and over again, and grow the stronger for every grapple, but death wins the last throw.

It may be said that Hezekiah’s despair of the future is simply the morbid thoughts of a sick man or the exaggerated fancies of a poet. "We must not," it is urged, "define a poet’s language with the strictness of a theology." True, and we must also make some allowance for a man dying prematurely in the midst of his days. But if this hymn is only poetry, it would have been as easy to poetise on the opposite possibilities across the grave. So quick an imagination as Hezekiah’s could not have failed to take advantage of the slightest scintilla of glory that pierced the cloud. It must be that his eye saw none, for all his poetry droops the other way. We seek in heaven for praise in its fulness; there we know God’s servants shall see Him face to face. But of this Hezekiah had not the slightest imagination; he anxiously prayed that he might recover "to strike the stringed instruments all the days of his life in the house of Jehovah. The living, the living, he praiseth thee, as I do this day; the father to the children shall make known Thy truth." But "they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy faithfulness."

Now compare all this with the Psalms of Christian hope; with the faith that fills Paul; with his ardour who says, "To me to depart is far better"; with the glory which John beholds with open face: the hosts of the redeemed praising God and walking in the light of His face, all the geography of that country laid down, and the plan of the new Jerusalem declared to the very fashion of her stones; with the audacity since of Christian art and song: the rapture of Watts’ hymns and the exhilaration of Wesley’s praise as they contemplate death; and with the joyful and exact anticipations of so many millions of common men as they turn their faces to the wall. In all these, in even the Book of the Revelation, there is of course a great deal of pure fancy. But imagination never bursts in any whither till fact has preceded. And it is just because there is a great fact standing between us and Hezekiah that the pureness of our faith and the richness of our imagination of immortality differ so much from his. The fact is Jesus Christ, His resurrection and ascension. It is He who has made all the difference and brought life and immortality to light.

And we shall know the difference if we lose our faith in that fact. For "except Christ be risen from the dead" and gone before to a country which derives all its reality and light for our imagination from that Presence, which once walked with us in the flesh, there remains for us only Hezekiah’s courage to make the best of a short reprieve, only Hezekiah’s outlook into Hades when at last we turn our faces to the wall. But to be stronger and purer for having met with death, as he was. only that we must afterwards succumb, with our purity and our strength, to death-this is surely to be, as Paul said, "of all men the most miserable."

Better far to own the power of an endless life, which Christ has sealed to us, and translate Hezekiah’s experience into the new calculus of immortality. If to have faced death as he did was to inherit dignity and peace and sense of power, what glory of kingship and queenship must sit upon those faces in the other world who have been at closer quarters still with the King of terrors, and through Christ their strength have spoiled him of his sting and victory! To have felt the worst of death and to have triumphed-this is the secret of the peaceful hearts, unfaltering looks and faces of glory, "which pass in solemn procession of worship" through all eternity before the throne of God.

We shall consider the old Testament views of a future life and resurrection more fully in chapters 28 and 30 of this volume.



THE two narratives, in which Isaiah’s career culminates-that of the Deliverance of Jerusalem {Isaiah 36:1-22; Isaiah 37:1-38} and that of the Recovery of Hezekiah {Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8}-cannot fail, coming together as they do, to suggest to thoughtful readers a striking contrast between Isaiah’s treatment of the community and his treatment of the individual, between his treatment of the Church and his treatment of single members. For in the first of these narratives we are told how an illimitable future, elsewhere so gloriously described by the prophet, was secured for the Church upon earth; but the whole result of the second is the gain for a representative member of the Church of a respite of fifteen years. Nothing, as we have seen, is promised to the dying Hezekiah of a future life; no scintilla of the light of eternity sparkles either in Isaiah’s promise or in Hezekiah’s prayer. The net result of the incident is a reprieve of fifteen years: fifteen years of a character strengthened, indeed, by having met with death, but, it would sadly seem, only in order to become again the prey of the vanities of this world (chapter 39). So meagre a result for the individual stands strangely out against the perpetual glory and peace assured to the community. And it suggests this question: Had Isaiah any real gospel for the individual? If so, what was it?

First of all, we must remember that God in His providence seldom gives to one prophet or generation more than a single main problem for solution. In Isaiah’s day undoubtedly the most urgent problem-and Divine problems are ever practical, not philosophical-was the continuance of the Church upon earth. It had really got to be a matter of doubt whether a body of people possessing the knowledge of the true God, and able to transfuse and transmit it, could possibly survive among the political convulsions of the world, and in consequence of its own sin. Isaiah’s problem was the reformation and survival of the Church. In accordance with this, we notice how many of his terms are collective, and how he almost never addresses the individual. It is the people, upon whom he calls-"the nation," "Israel," "the house of Jacob My vineyard," "the men of Judah His pleasant plantation." To these we may add the apostrophes to the city of Jerusalem, under many personifications: "Ariel, Ariel," "inhabitress of Zion," "daughter of Zion." When Isaiah denounces sin, the sinner is either the whole community or a class in the community, very seldom an individual, though there are some instances of the latter, as Ahaz and Shebna. It is "This people hath rejected," or "The people would not." When Jerusalem collapsed, although there must have been many righteous men still within her, Isaiah said, "What aileth thee that all belonging to thee have gone up to the housetops?". {Isaiah 22:1} His language is wholesale. When he is not attacking society, he attacks classes or groups: "the rulers," the land-grabbers, the drunkards, the sinners, the judges, the house of David, the priests and the prophets, the women. And the sins of these he describes in their social effects, or in their results upon the fate of the whole people; but he never, except in two cases, gives us their individual results. He does not make evident, like Jesus or Paul, the eternal damage a man’s sin inflicts on his own soul. Similarly when Isaiah speaks of God’s grace and salvation the objects of these are again collective-"the remnant; the escaped" (also a collective noun); a "holy seed"; a "’ stock" or "stump." It is a "restored nation" whom he sees under the Messiah, the perpetuity and glory of a city and a State. What we consider to be a most personal and particularly individual matter-the forgiveness of sin-he promises, with two exceptions, only to the community: "This people that dwelleth therein hath its iniquity forgiven." We can understand all this social, collective, and wholesale character of his language only if we keep in mind his Divinely appointed work-the substance and perpetuity of a purified and secure Church of God.

Had Isaiah then no gospel for the individual? This will indeed seem impossible to us if we keep in view the following considerations:-

1. ISAIAH HIMSELF had passed through a powerfully individual experience. He had not only felt the solidarity of the people’s sin-"I dwell among a people of unclean lips"-he had first felt his own particular guilt: "I am a man of unclean lips." One who suffered the private experiences which are recounted in chapter 6; whose "own eyes" had "seen the King, Jehovah of hosts"; who had gathered on his own lips his guilt and felt the fire come from heaven’s altar by an angelic messenger specially to purify him; who had further devoted himself to God’s service with so thrilling a sense of his own responsibility, and had so thereby felt his solitary and individual mission-he surely was not behind the very greatest of Christian saints in the experience of guilt, of personal obligation to grace and of personal responsibility. Though the record of Isaiah’s ministry contains no narratives, such as fill the ministries of Jesus and Paul, of anxious care for individuals, could he who wrote of himself that sixth chapter have failed to deal with men as Jesus dealt with Nicodemus, or Paul with the Philippian gaoler? It is not picturesque fancy, nor merely a reflection of the New Testament temper, if we realise Isaiah’s intervals of relief from political labour and religious reform occupied with an attention to individual interests, which necessarily would not obtain the permanent record of his public ministry. But whether this be so or not, the sixth chapter teaches that for Isaiah all public conscience and public labour found its necessary preparation in personal religion.

2. But, again, Isaiah had an INDIVIDUAL FOR HIS IDEAL. To him the future was not only an established State; it was equally, it was first, a glorious king. Isaiah was an Oriental. We moderns of the West place our reliance upon institutions; we go forward upon ideas. In the East it is personal influence that tells, persons who are expected, followed, and fought for. The history of the West is the history of the advance of thought, of the rise and decay of institutions, to which the greatest individuals are more or less subordinate. The history of the East is the annals of personalities; justice and energy in a ruler, not political principles, are what impress the Oriental imagination. Isaiah has carried this Oriental hope to a distinct and lofty pitch. The Hero whom he exalts on the margin of the future, as its Author, is not only a person of great majesty, but a character of considerable decision. At first only the rigorous virtues of the ruler are attributed to Him, {Isaiah 11:1 ff.} but afterwards the graces and: influence of a much broader and sweeter humanity. {Isaiah 32:2} Indeed, in this latter oracle we saw that Isaiah spoke not so much of his great Hero, as of what any individual might become. "A man," he says, "shall be as a hiding-place from the wind." Personal influence is the spring of social progress, the shelter and fountain force of the community. In the following verses the effect of so pure and inspiring a presence is traced in the discrimination of individual character-each man standing out for what he is-which Isaiah defines as his second requisite for social progress. In all this there is much for the individual to ponder, much to inspire him with a sense of the value and responsibility of his own character, and with the certainty that by himself he shall be judged and by himself stand or fall. "The worthless person shall be no more called princely, nor the knave said to be bountiful."

3. If any details of character are wanting in the picture of Isaiah’s hero, they are supplied by HEZEKIAH’S SELF-ANALYSIS (chapter 38). We need not repeat what we have said in the previous chapter of the king’s appreciation of what is the strength of a man’s character, and particularly of how character grows by grappling with death. In this matter the most experienced of Christian saints may learn from Isaiah’s pupil.

Isaiah had then, without doubt, a gospel for the individual; and to this day the individual may plainly read it in his book, may truly, strongly, joyfully live by it-so deeply does it begin, so much does it help to self-knowledge and self-analysis, so lofty are the ideals and responsibilities which it presents. But is it true that Isaiah’s gospel is for this life only?

Was Isaiah’s silence on the immortality of the individual due wholly to the cause we have suggested in the beginning of this chapter-that God gives to each prophet his single problem, and that the problem of Isaiah was the endurance of the Church upon earth? There is no doubt that this is only partly the explanation.

The Hebrew belonged to a branch of humanity-the Semitic-which, as its history proves, was unable to develop any strong imagination of, or practical interest in, a future life apart from foreign influence or Divine revelation. The pagan Arabs laughed at Mahommed when he preached to them of the Resurrection; and even to-day, after twelve centuries of Moslem influence, their descendants in the centre of Arabia, according to the most recent authority, fail to form a clear conception of, or indeed to take almost any practical interest in, another world. The northern branch of the race, to which the Hebrews belonged, derived from an older civilisation a prospect of Hades, that their own fancy developed with great elaboration. This prospect, however, which we shall describe fully in connection with chapters 14 and 26, was one absolutely hostile to the interests of character in this life. It brought all men, whatever their life had been on earth, at last to a dead level of unsubstantial and hopeless existence. Good and evil, strong and weak, pious and infidel, alike became shades, joyless and hopeless, without even the power to praise God. We have seen in Hezekiah’s case how such a prospect unnerved the most pious souls, and that revelation, even though represented at his bedside by an Isaiah, offered him no hope of an issue from it. The strength of character, however, which Hezekiah professes to have won in grappling with death, added to the closeness of communion with God which he enjoyed in this life, only brings out the absurdity of such a conclusion to life as the prospect of Sheol offered to the individual. If he was a pious man, if he was a man who had never felt himself deserted by God in this life, he was bound to revolt from so God-forsaken an existence after death. This was actually the line along which the Hebrew spirit went out to victory over those gloomy conceptions of death, that were yet unbroken by a risen Christ. "Thou wilt not," the saint triumphantly cried, "leave my soul in Sheol, nor wilt Thou suffer Thine holy one to see corruption." It was faith in the almightiness and reasonableness of God’s ways, it was conviction of personal righteousness, it was the sense that the Lord would not desert His own in death, which sustained the believer in face of that awful shadow through which no light of revelation had yet broken.

If, these, then, were the wings by which a believing soul under the Old Testament soared over the grave, Isaiah may be said to have contributed to the hope of personal immortality just in so far as he strengthened them. By enhancing as he did the value and beauty of individual character, by emphasising the indwelling of God’s Spirit, he was bringing life and immortality to light, even though be spoke no word to the dying about the fact of a glorious life beyond the grave. By assisting to create in the individual that character and sense of God, which alone could assure him he would never die, but pass from the praise of the Lord in this life to a nearer enjoyment of His presence beyond, Isaiah was working along the only line by which the Spirit of God seems to have assisted the Hebrew mind to an assurance of heaven.

But further in his favourite gospel of the REASONABLENESS OF GOD - that God does not work fruitlessly, nor create and cultivate with a view to judgment and destruction-Isaiah was furnishing an argument for personal immortality, tile force of which has not been exhausted. In a recent work on "The Destiny of Man" the philosophic author maintains the reasonableness of the Divine methods as a ground of belief both in the continued progress of the race upon earth and in the immortality of the individual. "From the first dawning of life we see all things working together toward one mighty goal-the evolution of the most exalted and spiritual faculties which characterise humanity. Has all this work been done for nothing? Is it all ephemeral, all a bubble that bursts, a vision that fades? On such a view the riddle of the universe becomes a riddle without a meaning. The more thoroughly we comprehend the process of evolution by which things have come to be what they are, the more we are likely to feel that to deny the everlasting persistence of the spiritual element in man is to rob the whole process of its meaning. It goes far toward putting us to permanent intellectual confusion. For my own part, I believe in the immortality of the soul, not in the sense in which I accept demonstrable truths of science, but as a supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God’s work."

From the same argument Isaiah drew only the former of these two conclusions. To him the certainty that God’s people would survive the impending deluge of Assyria’s brute force was based on his faith that the Lord is "a God of judgment," of reasonable law and method, and could not have created or fostered so spiritual a people only to destroy them. The progress of religion upon earth was certain. But does not Isaiah’s method equally make for the immortality of the individual? He did not draw this conclusion, but he laid down its premises with a confidence and richness of illustration that have never been excelled.

We, therefore answer the question we put at the beginning of the chapter thus:-Isaiah had a gospel for the individual for this life, and all the necessary premises of a gospel for the individual for the life to come.

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