Isaiah 38:8 Commentaries: "Behold, I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to go back ten steps." So the sun's shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down.
Isaiah 38:8
Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.
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38:1-8 When we pray in our sickness, though God send not to us such an answer as he here sent to Hezekiah, yet, if by his Spirit he bids us be of good cheer, assures us that our sins are forgiven, and that, whether we live or die, we shall be his, we do not pray in vain. See 2Ki 20:1-11.Behold, I will bring again the shadow - The shadow, or shade which is made by the interception of the rays of the sun by the gnomon on the dial. The phrase 'bring again' (Hebrew, משׁיב mēshı̂yb) means to cause to return (Hiphil, from שׁוב shûb, to return); that is, I will cause it retrograde, or bring back. Septuagint, Στρέψω Strepsō - 'I will turn back.' Few subjects have perplexed commentators more than this account of the sun-dial of Ahaz. The only other place where a sun-dial is mentioned in the Scriptures is in the parallel place in 2 Kings 20:9-10, where the account is somewhat more full, and the nature of the miracle more fully represented: 'This sign shalt thou have of the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing which he hath spoken: Shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees? 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.' That is, it would be in the usual direction which the shadow takes, for it to go down, and there would be less that would be decisive in the miracle. He therefore asked that it might be moved backward from its common direction, and then there could be no doubt that it was from God; 2 Kings 20:11 : 'And Isaiah the prophet cried unto Yahweh, and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.'

The shadow of the degrees - That is, the shadow made on the degrees; or indicated by the degrees on the dial. But there has been much difficulty in regard to the meaning of the word degrees. The Hebrew word (מעלה ma‛ălâh from עלה ‛âlâh, to ascend, to go up) means properly an ascent; a going up from a lower to a higher region; then a step by which one ascends, applied to the steps on a staircase, etc. 1 Kings 10:19; Ezekiel 40:26, Ezekiel 40:31, Ezekiel 40:34. Hence, it may be applied to the ascending or descending figures or marks on a dial designating the ascent or descent of the sun; or the ascent or descent of the shadow going up or down by steps or hours marked on its face. The word is applied to a dial nowhere else but here. Josephus understands this as referring to the stem in the house or palace of Ahaz. 'He desired that he would make the shadow of the sun which he had already made to go down ten steps in his house, to return again to the same place, and to make it as it was before;' by which he evidently regarded Hezekiah as requesting that the shadow which had gone down on the steps of the palace should return to its place ten steps backward. It is possible that the time of day may have been indicated by the shadow of the sun on the steps of the palace, and that this may have constituted what was called the sun-dial of Ahaz; but the more probable interpretation is that which regards the dial as a distinct and separate contrivance. The Septuagint renders it by the word steps, yet understanding it as Josephus does, Ἀναβαθμοὺς τοῦ οικου τοῦ πατρός σου Anabathmous tou oikou tou patros sou - 'The steps of the house of thy father.'

Which is gone down on the sun-dial of Ahaz - Margin, 'Degrees by,' or 'with the sun.' Hebrew, literally, 'which has descended on the steps; or degrees of Ahaz by, or with the sun (בשׁמשׁ bashemesh), that is, by means of the sun, or caused by the progress of the sun. The shadow had gone down on the dial by the regular course of the sun. Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah; and it is evident from this, that the dial had been introduced by him, and had been used by him to measure time. There is no mention of any instrument for keeping time in the Bible before this, nor is it possible, perhaps, to determine the origin or character of this invention, or to know where Ahaz obtained it. Perhaps all that can be known on the subject has been collected by Calmer, to whose article (Dial) in his Dictionary, and to the Fragments of Taylor appended to his Dictionary (Fragments, ii.; cii.) the reader may be referred for a more full statement on this subject than is consistent with the design of these notes.

The mention of the dial does not occur before the time of Ahaz, who lived 726 b.c.; nor is it certainly known that even after his time the Jews generally divided their time by hours. The word 'hour' (καἱρικός kairikos) occurs first in Tobit; and it has been supposed that the invention of dials came from beyond the Euphrates (Herod. ii. 109). But others suppose that it came from the Phenicians, and that the first traces of it are discoverable in what Homer says (Odyss. xv. 402) of 'an island called Syria lying above Ortygia, where the revolutions of the sun are observed.' The Phenicians are supposed to have inhabited this island of Syria, and it is therefore presumed that they left there this monument of their skill in astronomy. About three hundred years after Homer, Pherecydes set up a sun-dial in the same island to distinguish the hours. The Greeks confess that Anaximander, who lived 547 b.c., under the reign of Cyrus, first divided time by hours, and introduced sun-dials among them.

This was during the time of the captivity at Babylon. Anaximander traveled into Chaldea, and it is not improbable that he brought the dial from Babylon. The Chaldeans were early distinguished for, their attention to astronomy, and it is probable that it was in Babylon that the sun-dial, and the division of the day into hours, was first used, and that the knowledge of that was conveyed in some way from Chaldea to Ahaz. Interpreters have differed greatly in regard to the form of the sun-dial used by Ahaz, and by the ancients generally. Cyril of Alexandria and Jerome believed it was a staircase so disposed, that the sun showed the hours on it by the shadow. This, as we have seen, was the opinion of Josephus; and this opinion has been followed by many others. Others suppose it was an obelisk or pillar in the middle of a smooth pavement on which the hours were engraved, or on which lines were drawn which would indicate the hours.

Grotius, in accordance with the opinion of rabbi Elias Chomer, describes it thus: 'It was a concave hemisphere, in the midst of which was a globe, the shadow of which fell upon several lines engraved on the concavity of the hemisphere; these lines, they say, were eight-and-twenty in number.' This description accords nearly with the kind of dial which the Greeks called scapha, a boat, or hemisphere, the invention of which the Greeks ascribed to a Cbaldean named Berosus (Vitruv. ix. 9). See the plate in Taylor's Calmet, 'Sun-dial of Ahaz' (Figs. 1 and 2). Berosus was a priest of Belus in Babylon, and lived indeed perhaps 300 years after Ahaz; but there is no necessity of supposing that he was the inventor of the dial. It is sufficient to suppose that he was reputed to be the first who introduced it into Greece. He went from Babylon to Greece, where he taught astronomy first at Cos, and then at Athens, where one of his dials is still shown.

Herodotus expressly says (i. 109), 'the pole, the gnomon, and the division of the day into twelve parts, the Greeks received from the Babylonians.' This sun-dial was portable; it did not require to be constructed for a particular spot to which it should be subsequently confined; and therefore one ready-made might have been brought from Babylon to Ahaz. That be had commerce with these countries appears by his alliance with Tiglath-pileser 2 Kings 16:7-8. And that Ahaz was a man who was desirous of availing himself of foreign inventions, and introducing them into his capital, appears evident from his desire to have an altar constructed in Jerusalem, similar to the one which he had seen in Damascus 2 Kings 16:10. The dial is now a well-known instrument, the principle of which is, that the hours are marked on its face by a shadow cast from the sun by a gnomon. In order to the understanding of this miracle, it is not necessary to be acquainted with the form of the ancient dial. It will be understood by a reference to any dial, and would have been substantially the same, whatever was the form of the instrument. The essential idea is, that the shadow of the gnomon which thus indicated a certain degree or hour of the day, was made to go back ten degrees or places. It may conduce, however, to the illustration of this subject to have before the eye a representation of the usual form of the ancient dial. Therefore, see the three forms of dials which have been discovered and which are present in the book. The engraving represents:

1. A concave dial of white marble, found at Givita, in the year 1762.

2. Another concave dial, found at mount Tusculum, near Rome, in 1726.

3. A compound dial, preserved in the Elgin collection in the British Museum. It was found at Athens, supposed to have been used in marking the hours on one of the crossways of the city.

The first two are considered to resemble, if indeed they be not identical with the famous dial of Ahaz.'

In regard to this miracle, it seems only necessary to observe that all that is indispensable to be believed is, that the shadow on the dial was made suddenly to recede from any cause. It is evident that this may have been accomplished in several ways. It may have been by arresting the motion of the earth in its revolutions, and causing it to retrograde on its axis to the extent indicated by the return of the shadow, or it may have been by a miraculous bending, or inclining of the rays of the sun. As there is no evidence that the event was observed elsewhere; and as it is not necessary to suppose that the earth was arrested in its motion, and that the whole frame of the universe was adjusted to this change in the movement of the earth, it is most probable that it was an inclination of the rays of the sun; or a miraculous causing of the shadow itself to recede. This is the whole statement of the sacred writer, and this is all that is necessary to be supposed. What Hezekiah desired was a miracle; a sign that he should recover. That was granted. The retrocession of the shadow in this sudden manner was not a natural event. It could be caused only by God; and this was all that was needed. A simple exertion of divine power on the rays of the sun which rested on the dial, deflecting those rays, would accomplish the whole result. It may be added that it is not recorded, nor is it necessary to an understanding of the subject to suppose, that the bending of the rays was permanent, or that so much time was lost. The miracle was instantaneous, and was satisfactory to Hezekiah, though the rays of the sun casting the shadow may have again been soon returned to their regular position, and the shadow restored to the place in which it would have been had it not been interrupted. No infidel, therefore, can object to this statement, unless lie can prove that this could not be done by him who made the sun, and who is himself the fountain of power.

By which degrees it was gone down - By the same steps, or degrees on which the shadow had descended. So the Septuagint express it; 'so the sun re-ascended the ten steps by which the shadow had gone down. It was the shadow on the dial which had gone down. The sun was ascending, and the consequence was, of course, that the shadow on a vertical dial would descend. The 'sun' here means, evidently, the sun as it appeared; the rays, or the shining of the sun. A return of the shadow was effected such as would be produced by the recession of the sun itself.

8. bring again—cause to return (Jos 10:12-14). In 2Ki 20:9, 11, the choice is stated to have been given to Hezekiah, whether the shadow should go forward, or go back, ten degrees. Hezekiah replied, "It is a light thing (a less decisive miracle) for the shadow to go down (its usual direction) ten degrees: nay, but let it return backward ten degrees"; so Isaiah cried to Jehovah that it should be so, and it was so (compare Jos 10:12, 14).

sundial of Ahaz—Herodotus (2.109) states that the sundial and the division of the day into twelve hours, were invented by the Babylonians; from them Ahaz borrowed the invention. He was one, from his connection with Tiglath-pileser, likely to have done so (2Ki 16:7, 10). "Shadow of the degrees" means the shadow made on the degrees. Josephus thinks these degrees were steps ascending to the palace of Ahaz; the time of day was indicated by the number of steps reached by the shadow. But probably a sundial, strictly so called, is meant; it was of such a size, and so placed, that Hezekiah, when convalescent, could witness the miracle from his chamber. Compare Isa 38:21, 22 with 2Ki 20:9, where translate, shall this shadow go forward, &c.; the dial was no doubt in sight, probably "in the middle court" (2Ki 20:4), the point where Isaiah turned back to announce God's gracious answers to Hezekiah. Hence this particular sign was given. The retrogression of the shadow may have been effected by refraction; a cloud denser than the air interposing between the gnomon and dial would cause the phenomenon, which does not take from the miracle, for God gave him the choice whether the shadow should go forward or back, and regulated the time and place. Bosanquet makes the fourteenth year of Hezekiah to be 689 B.C., the known year of a solar eclipse, to which he ascribes the recession of the shadow. At all events, there is no need for supposing any revolution of the relative positions of the sun and earth, but merely an effect produced on the shadow (2Ki 20:9-11); that effect was only local, and designed for the satisfaction of Hezekiah, for the Babylonian astronomers and king "sent to enquire of the wonder that was done in the land" (2Ch 32:31), implying that it had not extended to their country. No mention of any instrument for marking time occurs before this dial of Ahaz, 700 B.C. The first mention of the "hour" is made by Daniel at Babylon (Da 3:6).

No text from Poole on this verse. Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees,.... Or lines made on a dial plate, to show the progress of the sun, and what time of day it was. Some think only the shadow was brought back by the power of God, the sun keeping its course as usual; but in the next clause the sun is expressly said to return ten degrees: besides, it is not easy to conceive how the shadow of the sun should go back, unless the sun itself did; if it had been only the shadow of it on Ahaz's dial, it would not have fallen under the notice of other nations, or have been the subject of their inquiry, as it was of the Babylonians, 2 Chronicles 32:31,

which is gone down on the sundial of Ahaz, the first sundial we read of; and though there might be others at this time, yet the lines or degrees might be more plain in this; and besides, this might be near the king's bedchamber, and to which he could look out at, and see the wonder himself, the shadow to return ten degrees backward; what those degrees, lines, or marks on the dial showed, is not certain. The Targum makes them to be hours, paraphrasing the words thus;

"behold, I will bring again the shadow of the stone of hours, by which the sun is gone down on the dial of Ahaz, backwards ten degrees; and the sun returned ten hours on the figure of the stone of hours, in which it went down;''

but others think they pointed out half hours; and others but quarters of hours; but, be it which it will, it matters not, the miracle was the same:

so the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down; and so this day was longer by these degrees than a common day, be they what they will, and according as we suppose the sun went back, suddenly, or as it usually moved, though in a retrograde way, and made the same progress again through these degrees. The Jews have a fable, that the day King Ahaz died was shortened ten hours, and now lengthened the same at this season, which brought time right again. According to Gussetius, these were not degrees or marks on a sundial, to know the time of day, for this was a later invention, ascribed to Anaximene's, a disciple of Anaximander (c), two hundred years after this; but were steps or stairs built by Ahaz, to go up from the ground to the roof of the house, on the outside of it, and which might consist of twenty steps or more; and on which the sun cast a shadow all hours of the day, "and this declined ten of these steps", which might be at the window of Hezekiah's bedchamber. (d).

(d) Plin. Nat. Hist. l. 2. c. 76. (d) Vid. Comment. Ebr. p. 859.

Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which hath gone down on the {e} sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it had gone down.

(e) Read 2Ki 20:8.

8. The R.V. has (after Ahaz) the phrase “with the sun,” which is wrongly taken by the A.V. as an adjunct of the word “dial” (the sun dial). It is necessary, however, to strike out the preposition “with” (as in the LXX.). The whole verse then reads literally: Behold I will turn the shadow of the steps which the sun has gone down on the steps of Ahaz backward ten steps; and the sun turned back ten steps on the steps which it had gone down. We must suppose that the “steps,” whatever they were, could be seen from the sick-chamber of Hezekiah, to whose mind the sign had an obvious symbolical significance. The retreating shadow, miraculously lengthening the day, was a pledge of the postponement of that “night in which no man can work” which had almost overtaken him. What kind of apparatus is denoted by the “steps of Ahaz” we have no means of determining. It is not clear, indeed, that a regularly constructed sun-dial of any kind is meant: a shadow falling on some fight of steps in the palace-court, and affording a rough and ready measure of time, would sufficiently explain the terms used.Verse 8. - The sun-dial of Ahaz. We are informed by Herodotus that the sun-dial was an invention of the Babylonians (Herod., 2:109), from whom it would readily pass to the Assyrians. Ahaz may have obtained a knowledge of it, or an actual specimen, when he visited Tiglath-Pileser at Damascus (2 Kings 16:10), and, on his return to his capital, have caused one to be erected there. Sun-dials are of several kinds. The one here spoken of seems to have consisted of a set of steps, with a perpendicular gnomon or pole at the top, the shadow of which receded up the steps as the sun rose in the heavens, and descended down them as the sun declined. We must suppose that the sign was given in the forenoon, when the shadow was gradually creeping up the steps. Hezekiah thought that a sudden jump in the same direction would be as nothing compared with a reversal of the motion, and therefore required that the shadow should go back, which it did. How the effect was produced, whether by an eclipse as argued by Mr. Bosanquet ('Transactions of Society of Bibl. Archaeology,' vol. 3. pp. 34-40), or by refraction, or by an actual alteration of the earth's motion, we are not told; but there is reason to believe that the cause, whatever it was, was local, not general, since the King of Babylon subsequently sent ambassadors, to inquire concerning "the wonder that was done in the land" (2 Chronicles 32:31). The sun returned ten degrees. We must not press this expression as indicating a real alteration of the sun's place in the heavens. The meaning is that the shadow cast by the sun returned. There is nothing to surprise us in the fact that we are carried back to the time when Jerusalem was still threatened by the Assyrian, since the closing vv. of chapter 37 merely contain an anticipatory announcement, introduced for the purpose of completing the picture of the last Assyrian troubles, by adding the fulfilment of Isaiah's prediction of their termination. It is within this period, and indeed in the year of the Assyrian invasion (Isaiah 36:1), since Hezekiah reigned twenty-nine years, and fifteen of these are promised here, that the event described by Isaiah falls - an event not merely of private interest, but one of importance in connection with the history of the nation also. "In those days Hizkiyahu became dangerously ill. And Isaiah son of Amoz, the prophet, came to him, and said to him, Thus saith Jehovah, Set thine house in order: for thou wilt die, and not recover. Then Hizkiyahu turned (K. om.) his face to the wall, and prayed to Jehovah, and said (K. saying), O Jehovah, remember this, I pray, that I have walked before thee in truth, and with the whole heart, and have done what was good in Thine eyes! And Hizkiyahu wept with loud weeping." "Give command to thy house" (ל, cf., אל, 2 Samuel 17:23) is equivalent to, "Make known thy last will to thy family" (compare the rabbinical tsavvâ'âh, the last will and testament); for though tsivvâh is generally construed with the accusative of the person, it is also construed with Lamed (e.g., Exodus 1:22; cf., אל, Exodus 16:34). חיה in such a connection as this signifies to revive or recover. The announcement of his death is unconditional and absolute. As Vitringa observes, "the condition was not expressed, because God would draw it from him as a voluntary act." The sick man turned his face towards the wall (פּניו הסב, hence the usual fut. cons. ויּסּב as in 1 Kings 21:4, 1 Kings 21:8, 1 Kings 21:14), to retire into himself and to God. The supplicatory אנּה (here, as in Psalm 116:4, Psalm 116:16, and in all six times, with ה) always has the principal tone upon the last syllable before יהוה equals אדני (Nehemiah 1:11). The metheg has sometimes passed into a conjunctive accent (e.g., Genesis 50:17; Exodus 32:31). אשׁר את does not signify that which, but this, that, as in Deuteronomy 9:7; 2 Kings 8:12, etc. "In truth," i.e., without wavering or hypocrisy. שׁלם בלב, with a complete or whole heart, as in 1 Kings 8:61, etc. He wept aloud, because it was a dreadful thing to him to have to die without an heir to the throne, in the full strength of his manhood (in the thirty-ninth year of his age), and with the nation in so unsettled a state.
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