The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.2 Kings 20
1. In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order [Heb., give charge concerning thine house]: for thou shalt die, and not live.
2. Then he turned his face to the wall [And he turned his face round (1Kings 21:4). He did so to avoid being disturbed in his prayer], and prayed unto the Lord, saying [Heb., with a great weeping],
3. I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked [Hezekiah deprecates an untimely death—the punishment of the wicked (Proverbs 10:27)—on account of his zeal for Jehovah and against the idols] before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.
4. And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying,
5. Turn again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord.
6. And I will add unto thy days fifteen years [with this very definite prediction, comp. Isaiah 7:8, Isaiah 23:15; Jeremiah 25:11, Jeremiah 25:22]; and I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake.
7. And Isaiah said, Take a lump of figs [figs pressed into a cake (1Samuel 25:18)]. And they took and laid it on the boil [the word "boil" denotes leprous and similar ulcers (Exodus 9:9; Job 2:7), not plague], and he recovered [Heb., lived].
8. ¶ And Hezekiah said unto Isaiah, What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me, and that I shall go up into the house of the Lord the third day?
9. And Isaiah said, This sign shalt thou have of the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing that he hath spoken: shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?
10. And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to go down [spread] ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees.
11. And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial [Heb., degrees] of Ahaz.
12. ¶ At that time Berodach-baladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present unto Hezekiah: for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick.
13. And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and shewed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment [the fine oil; perfumed oil used for anointing], and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures [see 2Chronicles 32:27-28, storehouses beyond the precincts of the palace]: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not.
14. ¶ Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from a far country, even from Babylon.
15. And he said, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All the things that are in mine house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shewed them.
16. And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord.
17. Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried into Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord.
18. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.
19. Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, Good is the word of the Lord [pious acquiescence in the will of God (comp. Eli's "It is the Lord: let him do what seemeth him good." Comp, a similar expression in 1Kings 2:38)], which thou hast spoken. And he said, Is it not good, if peace and truth [peace and permanence (or, security and stability: Jeremiah 33:6)] be in my days?
20. ¶ And the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?
21. And Hezekiah slept with his fathers: and Manasseh his son reigned in his stead.
So far in our Bible studies we have had many weary wanderings amongst bad men. The fear was that to some extent familiarity with them might blunt our own moral sensibility. Man after man has passed before us out of whose very countenance the image of God had faded. How pleasant it is then, how spiritually exhilarating, to come upon a case in which we read—
"And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did" (2Kings 18:3)!
After a long journey underground we seem to have come suddenly upon a sweet garden, and the sight of it is as heaven. The charm is always in the contrast. If things are not quite so good as we supposed them to be, they are all the better by reason of circumstances through which we have passed, which have made us ill at ease, and have impoverished or disheartened us; then very little of the other kind goes a long way. A man comes up out of the underground railway and says when he emerges into the light, How fresh the air is here! What a healthy locality! How well to live in this neighbourhood! Why does he speak so kindly of his surroundings? Not because of those surroundings intrinsically, but because of the contrast which they present to the circumstances through which he has just passed. Hezekiah was no perfect man. We shall see how noble he was, and how rich in many high qualities, yet how now and again we see the crutch of the cripple under the purple of the king. It is well for us that he was occasionally and temporarily weak, or he would have been like a star we cannot touch, and at which we cannot light our own torch. No. Even Hezekiah was a man like ourselves in many particulars, and therefore what was good and sound in him is all the more attractive and is all the more possible to us. Who can mistake an honest man? If all men were upright, where would be the peculiarity of any one individual man's integrity? But, given a corrupt state of society, when the honest man appears, we say, The wind has changed: it blows balmily, healthfully; it comes from a fine origin and brings with it many a blessing. Who can mistake the atmosphere of the sea? How it blows away all the city dulness! How it quickens the blood! How it throws off increasing years, and makes the voyager feel almost young again! It is so with honesty, nobleness, charity, goodness of character, when the surrounding air is charged with some kind of poison or pestilence. So it is that we come upon Hezekiah. Perhaps it is well for him that we approach his case after such an experience. He thus gets advantages which otherwise might not have been accorded to him: he looks the higher for the dwarfs that are round about him, the whiter because of the black population amidst which he stands, at once a contrast and a rebuke. But from Hezekiah's point of view the case was different. Behind him were traditions of the corruptest sort. He was as a speckled bird in the line of his own family. It is hard to be good amidst so much that is really bad. Any attempts at goodness are accounted examples of affectation, conceit, vanity, pharisaism; and under such circumstances sometimes a man's foes may be the people of his own household: they wish he was more pliable, less Sabbatarian, less devoted to his Bible, less constant in his attendance at church; he might go once a day, and give himself one end of the rope not tethered to the altar; but he will not. Has that man an easy time of it? No hard word may be spoken to him, certainly no bitter word, and yet all the while he may be made to feel that perhaps after all he may be affecting somewhat of piety and pureness, and those who are looking on may be better critics of him than he is of himself. At all events, there come to him periods of trial, and sometimes he says within himself, Shall I today be as constant as I have been, or may I not break away now? Have I not built up a character, and may I not retire upon my moral competence, and live henceforth the life of a latitudinarian? After a long spell of many years, surely I might intermit a little. Who shall say that the temptation is not subtle and strong? Some men have to force their way to church through innumerable and unnameable difficulties. This ought to be reckoned. Some credit must be due to men who are thus constant to their sense of public duty and religious obligation. Men are not always at church with the entire consent of those who are round about them. What, then, must be done? One of two things: either yield to the temptation, or resist it. You cannot trifle with it: you cannot now compromise, and then recur to firmness, and again connive, and again balance and consider, and hesitate. Virtue is not an intermittent grace. We must stand, or we must fall.
Hezekiah had a wicked father. How will that wickedness come out in the son? Not perhaps as wickedness, but as infirmity, weakness, want of constancy in some directions, though there may be no want of firmness in others. Can a man wholly escape the bad blood of his father? We must not forget that Hezekiah's mother's name was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. How she came to marry a wicked husband must remain a mystery. But the mother will come up in the son. She was the daughter of Zachariah, and Zachariah was a prophet, or seer—a man with double sight—one of those strange men who can see beyond the merely visible, the palpable, and read things that lie behind. He came up again in his daughter, and the mother came up again in the son, and so there was a mysterious play of inheritance, transfer, transition, reappearance, somewhat of resurrection,—a great tragic mystery of transformation and representation. We speak about a man as if he were self-contained, just standing upon so much ground, without relation behind or before, on the right hand or on the left: whereas, no man is thus insularly placed, no man is an absolute solitary. Every man has in him the blood of the past, and the life of the future. Can a son of a good mother be altogether bad? Surely not! You must have mistaken the case if you thought so. Your very thinking so may constitute an element of hopefulness in your case. Take comfort from that suggestion. So long as you can think of yourself seriously, and of the past, and of your advantages and compare what you are with what you might have been, there is hope of you. But can there be in all history such an irony as this, that a man should have had a praying mother and be himself a prayerless man? No, it cannot be! Somewhere, at some time, and in some way, the better nature will assert itself, and out of a good seed surely there will come a good harvest. But the lesson does not lie upon one side only: here is encouragement to praying fathers and to praying mothers. Zachariah, read on; read between the lines of things; interpret events symbolically; read the apocalyptic sense of what is happening; and out of all this mental elevation and spiritual conduct there will come results in your daughter or your son. Abi, pray on; be just to your father's memory; say—He was a holy man,—I must prove it by being a holy woman; he cannot live upon a written character,—he must live in my life: I will prove that such a child must have had a good father. So the vital lessons fall, on the right hand, on the left, and round about us: shame be to us if, amid this shower of monition and encouragement and stimulus, we be deaf and dumb and blind, unfeeling, unresponsive.
Hezekiah will now go to work and prove himself to be an energetic reformer:—
"He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan" (2Kings 18:4).
He must have been a strong man. He had no colleague, no ally; no one to say to him, Be brave, be true. He went straight against the hardest wall that ever was built by the stubbornness and perversity of man. It is not easy to begin life by a destructive process of reformation. Who would not rather plant a tree than throw down a wall? Who would not rather plant flowers, and enjoy their beauty and fragrance, than give himself the severe toil, the incessant trouble, of destroying corrupt and evil institutions? Whoever attempts this kind of destructive work, or even a constructive work which involves preliminary destructiveness, will have a hard time of it: criticism will be very sharp, selfishness will be developed in an extraordinary degree. If a man be more than politician—if he be a real born statesman, looking at whole empires at once and not at mere parishes, and if in his thought and purpose he should base his whole policy upon fundamental right, he will not have an easy life of it even in a Christian country. In proportion as he bases his whole policy on righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, he will be pelted with hard names and struck at with unfriendly hands. This holds good in all departments of life, in all great reformations, in all assaults made upon ignorance, selfishness, tyranny, and wrong of every name. The children of Israel always seemed to live a foolish life. They were the veriest children,—so at least we would say but for fear of branding sweet children with an evil stigma. They were infantile, weak, treacherous to themselves, uncertain at every point, and so, having kept the brasen serpent, they burned incense to it. They liked a visible god. When the calf appealed to their religious feelings they danced around it as if at last they had found a deity: but who can worship a spirit, invisible, impalpable, far away, near at hand, without a name, without a shape which we can verify and say, It comes to thus much, and this is the weight, and this is the value of it? It requires a mind of some mental strength to stand up, take hold of the brasen serpent, and call it "Nehushtan"—a contemptuous term, meaning a piece of brass—dead brass—useless, worthless brass,—a relic, but not a God. Let us give credit to the men who have been bold, religiously intrepid in the midst of circumstances of a most discouraging and overbearing kind. They are the men to whom we owe our present privileges. We have the Bible in our mother-tongue because they were valiant. Not a church would have been built today in which men could assemble with a sense of freedom—sweet, joyous liberty—but for the Hezekiahs and others who went forth, and, at great cost and great peril, destroyed things evil and black, by the power of God's almightiness,—overthrew them, and set up a better kingdom.
What was the root of Hezekiah's character? At present we have seen phenomena of a gracious kind; we like what we have heard of this man; but what about his root?
"He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah nor any that were before him. For he clave to the Lord, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses" (2Kings 18:5-6).
At length a man arose who said, I will do God's will, God helping me: I will not only read the commandments, I will incarnate them; I will not speak religious words only, but live a religious life. How tender and yet how emphatic are the words, he "trusted," he "clave," he "kept." "He trusted," that is to say, he had no other trust. His religion was not a convenience, one thing amongst many things, an occasional exercise in piety: but a perpetual confidence, the one trust, the all-centralising, and all-ruling fact. Then "he clave," he kept close to; he would not allow anything to come between his hand and the God he seized; the hand could do nothing else except cleave to God, and what was possible through that cleaving, and much is possible of a beneficent and helpful kind. "He kept the commandments," counted them one by one; examined himself in them; took himself daily to task about the whole ten. We live an off-hand life. Religion is now as easy as a wave of the hand, a salutation across a thoroughfare; it is something that can be taken up, and laid down, and forgotten, and resumed. What wonder if the Rab-shakehs of the age come and taunt us, and mock our piety, and blow back our prayers before they get to the skies? We want more trust, more cleaving piety, more keeping of the commandments, living in them, and having no other life that is not consonant with them.
Now came, as we have often seen, the inevitable temptation. We pass instantly to the visit of Rab-shakeh. This Rab-shakeh was an eloquent man. He had the gift of mockery; he could gibe well. He was not without a certain logical qualification. He made a long offensive speech to the people under Hezekiah's rule; and he thought he had them at both ends of the argument. Having mocked their piety, laughed it down, challenged it, spat upon it, he said, Perhaps you will say, "We trust in the Lord our God," but you forget, said Rab-shakeh, that this very man Hezekiah has thrown down his altars, has taken away his groves, has rooted up the house of your God by the very foundations. Rab-shakeh did not understand the destructive reformation wrought out by Hezekiah. He heard of the groves being cut down and the holy places being removed, and he said, This is so much to our advantage: the king of Assyria shall hear of this, and we shall make good commerce of it. He did not distinguish between idolatry and piety, between a reform essential to health and a mere accident in history. What was good in Hezekiah seemed to be wickedness to Rab-shakeh. Oh, how Rab-shakeh assaulted the people, trampled upon them, leaped, as it were, over their bodies, and mocked their refuges and their trust, and thrust his fist in the face of Egypt and said, Come away from Hezekiah: trust him not; he is blind, he is incapable; leave him, and I will tell you what Assyria will do for you: I will "come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey, that ye may live, and not die: and hearken not unto Hezekiah, when he persuadeth you, saying, The Lord will deliver us" (2Kings 18:32). It is but an empty saying, Come, and I will give you a great Canaan! Sometimes it does seem as if the enemy had the best of it. Everything lies so handily to him. He says, I will get you through this difficulty: I know a lie that would deceive a king; I can instruct you in a policy that would blind a judge; I could get the money for you; you need have no difficulty about that; why, I say in confidence, I can let you have it now! What can the preacher do in the presence of such a Rab-shakeh? Or he may not offer temptation in that direction, but in another, and say, All these arguments I could answer if I cared to do so. Who wrote the Bible? Who has seen the original manuscripts? Who has ever seen God? It is utterly impossible to know the infinite,—come, and I will make you rich at once in real solid practical things: I can give you work instantly, and wages immediately the work is begun; I can give you something in advance; leave the preacher, the altar, the Bible, the church, and come and work in the open streets, and be doing something that you can handle, and about which there is no manner of doubt. People begin then to wonder. They should adopt the policy which was imposed upon the children of Hezekiah, "But the people held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king's commandment was, saying, Answer him not" (2Kings 18:36). Nothing is to be got out of wordy controversy. Live the Christian life; grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the controversialist is contemning you, taunting you, and smiting you, show him that you are growing broader, more massive in character, more tender in disposition, more benevolent in every aspiration and desire and purpose, and thus by well-doing "Put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." Defend your Christianity by the eloquence of your life.
The servants of Hezekiah said to him, What Rab-shakeh has said may come to pass. Let us go to Isaiah and tell him all. Hezekiah himself thought that perhaps there might be something in it after all. There he and his servants fell into a state of spiritual incertitude. "So the servants of king Hezekiah came to Isaiah." They came to the right man. Standing up like a king, he said:
"Thus shall ye say to your master, Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will send a blast upon him, and he shall hear a rumour, and shall return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land" (2Kings 19:6-7).
He would make no violent attack upon the men; he would summon no legion of angels to overwhelm this great Oriental potentate;—he would simply "send a blast,"—he would change the wind, he would scatter something upon it and bid it blow across the brain of the king of Assyria, and the king would not know his right hand from his left, nor the morning from the night; he would be calling everybody by the wrong name, and asking for things he did not wish to possess, and generally be thrown into a state of unbalanced, wandering mind. I will send a whisper to him; he shall simply go to the ear of the king of Assyria and say something, and the king will take fright, and fly away in a panic. O Hezekiah, continue thy prayer, repeat thy morning sacrifice and thine evening oblation; and as for the king of Assyria, I will send a blast, and a rumour; I will answer Rab-shakeh. Let the contempt of the enemy be answered by the contempt of heaven.
Rab-shakeh having found that the king of Assyria was warring against Libnah, returned, and when he heard that Tirhakah king of Ethiopia was come up to war, he once more addressed Hezekiah in terms of exultation and contempt. He was pretendedly anxious that Hezekiah should not be deceived by the Lord his God, and then he taunts him with many a history in which Assyria had been conqueror over opposing nations. He completes his taunt by asking, "Where is the king of Hamath, and the king of Arpad, and the king of the city of Sepharvaim, of Hena, and Ivah?" (xix. 13). This message came to Hezekiah in the form of a letter, or letters, and Hezekiah instantly "went up into the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord." There is no need to regard this as in any sense involving a heathenish custom: the meaning simply is that Hezekiah consulted the Lord upon the whole matter, and declined to take anything into his own counsel or power. He acknowledges the dignity of God by the expression—"O Lord God of Israel, which dwellest between the cherubims," and then he points to the letter which more immediately concerned himself, thus showing his consciousness that the majesty of the Lord did not separate him from taking an interest in earthly things. We are not to stop at the point of majesty, but are to reason that because God is so majestic and august he will pay attention to the prayers and desires of the beings whom he has created in his own image and likeness. The divine majesty is not a rebuke to human approach but an encouragement to human prayer. When Hezekiah says, "Thou art the God," the emphasis is to be laid upon the word "thou,"—Thou art the true God, and thou alone. When he desires God to bow down his ear, and hear, the reference is not so much to listen to Hezekiah's prayer as to the words of Sennacherib. The meaning of the whole petition may be—Interpose immediately and energetically between me and mine enemy: let thine ears hear, let thine eyes see, and let thine arm be extended. Hezekiah acknowledges that the kings of Assyria had destroyed the nations and their lands, and had cast the gods of the nations into the fire. By so much he gives the Assyrians credit for having spoken the truth, and for having thus founded their project against Israel upon the success which they had already attained. Hezekiah acknowledges, indeed, that the gods of the nations were no gods; at the same time he feels that to the mind of the Assyrians they may have been as real deities, and their overthrow may have encouraged the Assyrians to believe that Jehovah was like unto them. Thus the prayer of Hezekiah was argued and ordered in logical and historical form, and was intended to excite, as it were, the very jealousy of the Lord God of Israel.
We now turn to the reply which was made to Hezekiah through the lips of Isaiah the son of Amoz. The reply was manifestly given in a contemptuous tone,—
"The virgin the daughter of Zion hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn; the daughter of Jerusalem hath shaken her head at thee" (2Kings 19:21).
The twenty-second verse puts into an interrogative form a reproach against the ignorance of the king:
"Whom hast thou reproached and blasphemed? and against whom hast thou exalted thy voice, and lifted up thine eyes on high?" (2Kings 19:22).
The meaning evidently is that the king did not know the real nature of the God of Israel and Judah, and that he was making an infinite mistake in confounding that nature with what he had already seen of the idols of the nations. Humiliation is promised to the king of Assyria: a hook is to be thrust into his nose, a bridle is to be put upon his lips, and he is to be turned back by the way which he came. Whilst the king of Assyria is humiliated, the remnant that escaped of the house of Judah is promised again to take root downward, and bear fruit upward; literally, shall add root to root, shall take firmer root than ever, as a tree often does after a storm; the ravaged land was to be newly stocked by the remnant that was to be saved out of Jerusalem. All these statements are supported by the declaration—"The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this." Thus the promise is not made in any human name or guaranteed by the conquests of human history; it is immediately connected with the very purpose and power of the Most High. Nor is this the only instance in which divine strength is promised on behalf of Judah and Israel: in verse thirty-four we read, "For I will defend this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake." We must always be careful to notice that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and that no occasion is ever given for man to glory in man, but that everywhere from the beginning of religious history, as given in the Bible, it is God who is King, and Ruler, and Protector, and to him all the glory of deliverance and conquest undividedly belongs.
And "that night"—that night!—"The angel of the Lord went out and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses" (2Kings 19:35). Again and again we say, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Let Rab-shakeh talk, let him deliver his burning messages, and when he has ceased his mockery it is not necessary for us to answer: God will defend his own cause. There is one Defender of the Faith.—His name? Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. There is one Head of the Church.—His name? King of kings, Lord of lords. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.
Here we stand. We think all history is upon the Christian side. But let us never forget that the finest argument in favour of Christianity is a Christian life.