Isaiah 38
Pulpit 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.
Verse 1. - In those days. The illness of Hezekiah is fixed by ver. 5 (and 2 Kings 20:6) to the fourteenth year of his reign, or B.C. 714. The entire narrative of this chapter and the next is therefore thirteen or fourteen years earlier than that of ch. 36, 37, which belongs to Hezekiah's closing years, B.C. 701-698 (see the comment on Isaiah 26:l, 2). Sick unto death; i.e. attacked by a malady which, if it had run its natural course, would have been fatal. Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz. This double designation of Isaiah, by his office and by his descent, marks the original independence of this narrative, which was not intended for a continuation of ch. 37. Thou shalt die, and not live. Prophecies were often threats, and, when such, were conditional, announcing results which would follow unless averted by prayer or repentance (compare Jonah's prophecy, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown," Jonah 3:4).
Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD,
Verse 2. - Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall. The action resembles that of Ahab (1 Kings 21:4); but the spirit is wholly different. Ahab turned away in sullenness, Hezekiah that he might pray undisturbed Beds seem to have been placed in the corners of rooms, with the head against one wall of the room, and one side against another.
And said, Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.
Verse 3. - Remember now, O Lord. Hezekiah was in the full vigour of life - thirty-nine years old only. He had probably as yet no son, since Manasseh, who succeeded him, was but twelve (2 Kings 21:1, 2 Chronicles 33:1) when Hezekiah died at the age of fifty-four. It was a grievous thing to a Jew to leave no male offspring: it was viewed as a mark of the Divine displeasure to be cut off in the midst of one's days (Job 15:32; Job 22:15, 16: Psalm 55:23; Proverbs 10:27; Ecclesiastes 7:17). Hezekiah asked himself - Had he deserved such a sentence? He thought that he had not. He knew that, with whatever shortcomings, he had endeavoured to serve God, had trusted in him (2 Kings 18:5), cleaved to him (2 Kings 18:6), "departed not from following him, but kept his commandments" (2 Kings 18:6) He therefore ventured upon an expostulation and an earnest prayer; and God was pleased to hear the prayer and to grant it. I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart. Compare the unbiased testimony of the authors of Kings and Chronicles (2 Kings 18:3-6; 2 Chronicles 29:2; 2 Chronicles 31:20, 21). Under the old dispensation, there was nothing to prevent men from pleading their righteousness before God (comp. Job 31:4-40; Psalm 7:3-2; 18:20-24; 26:1-8, etc.). Hezekiah, however, does not really regard himself as sinless (comp. ver. 17). And Hezekiah wept sore. In the East feelings are but little restrained. Joy shows itself in laughter and shouting, grief in tears and shrill cries. Xerxes wept when he thought of the shortness of human life (Herod., 7:46); the Persians rent the air with load cries at the funeral of Masistius (ibid., 9:24); on the news of the defeat at Salamis all Susa "cried aloud, and wept and wailed without stint" (ibid., 8:99). So David wept for Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:12) and again for Absalom (2 Samuel 19:1); Joash wept when he heard the words of the Law (2 Kings 22:19); Nehemiah wept at the desolation of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:4); the ambassadors of Hezekiah, when disappointed of the object of their embassy, "wept bitterly" (Isaiah 33:7). No king in the East puts himself under any restraint, if he has an inclination for either tears or laughter.
Then came the word of the LORD to Isaiah, saying,
Verse 4. - Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying. The author of Kings describes graphically how Isaiah, after delivering his message, had gone out, but had not reached the middle court of the palace, when his footsteps were arrested, and the Divine voice bade him "turn again and relieve Hezekiah's fears by a fresh announcement" (2 Kings 20:4). So swiftly does God answer "the prayer of faith."
Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.
Verse 5. - Thus saith the Lord,... I have heard thy prayer. According to the author of Kings, the full message sent to Hezekiah was, "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. And I will add unto thy clays fifteen years; and I will deliver time 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" (2 Kings 20:5, 6). The words in italics are additional to those here reported by Isaiah. Fifteen years. This was doubling, or rather more than doubling, the length of Hezekiah's reign, and allowing him a length of life exceeding that of the great majority of the kings of Judah, who seldom attained the age of fifty. Hezekiah lived to be fifty-four.
And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.
And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken;
Verse 7. - And this shall be a sign unto thee from the Lord. It was the day of the free offering of "signs" by God to those whom his providence had placed at the head of his people. Ahaz had been offered a sign (Isaiah 7:11), but had refused the offer made him (Isaiah 7:12); the Lord had then "himself" given him a sign." Hezekiah received a sign to assure him of the complete discomfiture of Sennacherib (Isaiah 37:30); an offer was here made him of a sign of a peculiar kind, and it was offered under peculiar conditions. We learn from 2 Kings that a choice was submitted to him - he was to determine whether time, as measured by a certain timepiece or clock, which was known as "the dial of Ahaz," should make a sudden leap forward - the shadow advancing ten degrees upon the dial (2 Kings 20:9), or whether it should retire backwards, the shadow upon the same dial receding ten degrees. Hezekiah determined in favour of the latter sign, from its appearing to him the more difficult of accomplishment; and on his declaring his decision, the shadow receded to the prescribed distance. Time was rolled backward, or at any rate appeared to be rolled backward; and the king, seeing so great a miracle, accepted without hesitation the further predictions that had been made to him. The Lord will do this thing that he hath spoken. By the nexus of this verse with the preceding, it would naturally be concluded that "the thing" to be done was the defence of Jerusalem; but ver. 22, which belongs properly to this part of the narrative, shows the contrary. Hezekiah had asked for a sign" that he should go up to the house of the Lord."
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.
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.
The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness:
Verse 9. - The writing of Hezekiah; rather, a writing. After he had recovered from his illness, Hezekiah, it would seem, retraced his feelings as he lay upon his sick-bed, and embodied them in this monody. It has been well termed, "a peculiarly sweet and plaintive specimen of Hebrew psalmody" (Cheyne). Four stanzas or strophes of unequal length are thought to be discernible:

(1) from the beginning of ver. 10 to the end of ver. 12;

(2) from the beginning of ver. 13 to the end of ver. 14;

(3) from the beginning of ver. 15 to the end of ver. 17;

(4) from the beginning of ver. 18 to the end of ver. 20.

In the first two the monarch is looking forward to death, and his strain is mournful; in the last two he has received the promise of recovery, and pours out his thankfulness.
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.
Verse 10. - In the cutting off of my days; literally, in the pausing of my days - which is taken by some to mean "the noon-tide of my life" - when my sun had reached its zenith, and might have been expected to begin to decline; by others to signify "the still tranquillity of my life," when it was gliding quietly and peacefully along without anything to disturb it. Ver. 6 is against this latter view. I shall go to the gates of the grave; rather, I shall enter in at the gates of hell (or, Hades) - the place of departed spirits (see the comment on Isaiah 14:9). Hezekiah bewails his fate somewhat as Antigone: Ἀλλ ἔμ ὁ παγκοίτας Αἴδης ζῶσαν ἄγει τὰν Ἀχέροντος ἀκτάν (Soph., 'Ant.,' 11. 810-813).
I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.
Verse 11. - I shall not see the Lord (comp. Psalm 6:5, "In death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave (Sheol) who shall give thee thanks?" and see also Psalm 30:9; Psalm 88:10-12; Psalm 115:17). The Jews had not yet attained the conception of a blissful region in Hades, where God manifested himself, and the saints, who were awaiting the resurrection, saw him and praised him. Even the Lord. (For examples of repetition for the sake of emphasis, see Isaiah 29:1; Isaiah 33:22; Isaiah 38:19; Isaiah 40:1; Isaiah 51:17, etc.) In the land of the living; i.e. "as I do now in the land of the living" (comp. Psalm 27:13; Psalm 116:9).
Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
Verse 12. - Mine age is departed; rather, my dwelling is plucked up. The body seems to be viewed as the dwelling-place of the soul. Hezekiah's is to be taken from him, and carried far away, like a shepherd's tent, while he, his true self, i.e. his soul, is left bare and naked (comp. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4). I have cut off like a weaver my life; rather, I have rolled up, like a weaver, my life. The careful weaver rolls up the web, as it advances, to keep it clean and free from dust. Hezekiah had been equally careful of his life; he had about half finished it, when lo! "Jehovah takes up the fatal scissors" (Cheyne), and severs the unfinished cloth from the loom (compare the Greek myth of Clotho, Laehesis, and Atropos). With pining sickness; rather, as in the margin, from the thrum. The "thrum" is the portion of the warp which adjoins the upper bar of the loom.
I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
Verse 13. - I reckoned till morning, etc.; i.e. "I lay thinking till the morning, that God would crush me as a lion crushes his prey - I expected him all day long to make an end of me."
Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.
Verse 14. - Like a crane or a swallow. The sus, here translated "crane," is probably "the swift," which has a loud, shrill note. The, agur is, perhaps, "the crane;" but this is very uncertain. The two words occur as the names of birds only here and in Jeremiah 8:7. So did I chatter; rather, so did I scream (Cheyne). I did mourn; rather, I did moan. Mine eyes fail with looking upward; rather, mine eyes are weak to look upward; i.e. I have scarcely the courage or the strength to look to Jehovah; yet still I do look to him falteringly, and make my appeal: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me (comp. Job 17:3); literally, be Surety for me. "The image," as Mr. Cheyne says, "is that of a debtor, who is being dragged to prison" at the suit of an exacting creditor, and for whom there is but one hope of relief; viz. if he can obtain a sufficient surety. Hezekiah calls on God to be the Surety; but God is the Creditor! Still, there is an appeal from God's justice to God's mercy - from Jehovah who punishes to Jehovah who forgives sin; and this appeal Hezekiah seems to intend to make when he beseeches God to "undertake for him."
What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.
Verse 15. - What shall I say? The strain is suddenly changed. Hezekiah's prayer has been answered, and he has received the answer (vers. 5-8). He is "at a loss to express his wonder and his gratitude" (Cheyne); comp. 2 Samuel 7:20. God has both spoken unto him - i.e., given him a promise of recovery - and also himself hath done it; i.e. has performed his promise. Already he feels in himself the beginnings of amendment - he is conscious that the worst is past, and that the malady has taken a turn for the better. I shall go softly all my years. Delitzsch renders, "I shall walk quietly;" Mr. Cheyne, "I shall walk at ease;" both apparently understanding the expression of a quiet, easy life, made the more pleasant by contrast with past pain. But it seems better to understand the "soft going," with Dr. Kay, of a hushed and subdued spirit, consequent upon the crisis past, and thenceforth continuing - the king walking, as it were, perpetually in God's presence. In the bitterness; rather, after the bitterness (Delitzsch), when it has departed; and "because of it" (Nagelsbach), through its remembrance.
O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.
Verse 16. - By these things; i.e. "the things which thou speakest and doest" (ver. 15). Man does not "live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 8:3). And in all these things. This rendering is against the laws of grammar. Translate, and wholly in them.
Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.
Verse 17. - Behold, for peace I had great bitterness; rather, behold, it was for my peace that I had such bitterness, such bitterness. The pain that I underwent was for the true peace and comfort of my soul (comp. Psalm 94:12; Psalm 119:75; Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:5-11). Thou hast in love, etc.; literally, thou hast loved my soul back from the pit of destruction - as if God's love, beaming on the monarch's soul, had drawn it back from the edge of the pit (comp. Hosea 11:4, "I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love"). For thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. Where they could be no more seen, and therefore would be no more remembered (comp. Micah 7:19; Psalm 25:7; Psalm 79:8; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 64:9, etc.). Hezekiah, though lately he protested his integrity (ver. 3). did not mean to say that he was sinless, lie knew that he had sinned; he regarded his sins as having brought down upon him the sentence of death; as God has revoked the sentence, he knows that he has pardoned his sins and put them away from his remembrance.
For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
Verse 18. The grave cannot praise thee (cormpare the comment on ver. 11). It is avoiding the plain force of these passages to say that Hezekiah only means that those who go to Hades in a state of condemnation cannot be expected there to praise God (Kay). He speaks broadly and generally of all: "The living, the living, shall praise thee; Sheol cannot praise thee; Death cannot celebrate thee." Manifestly, though he believes in a future state, it is one in which there is either no energy at all, or at any rate no devotional energy. He may think, with Isaiah. that "the righteous man," when he is "taken away," will "enter into peace" (Isaiah 57:1, 2); but absolute "peace" precludes energy (see Arist., 'Eth. Nit.,' 1. 10. § 2). Hezekiah shrinks from losing all his activities, including his sense of personal communion with God. He does not, perhaps, "look on the condition of the faithful departed as one of comfortless gloom;" but he views it as one of deprivation, and is unwilling to enter into it. It was by the coming of Christ and the preaching of his gospel that "life and immortality" were first truly "brought to light" (2 Timothy 1:10).
The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.
Verse 19. - The living. Those who still enjoy the light of day. The repetition is emphatic, and has the force of "the living, and the living only." The father to the children. Hezekiah may, or may not, have had children himself at the time. Manasseh was not born; but he may have had daughters, or even other sons, who did not survive him. He is not, however, perhaps, thinking of his own ease.
The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.
Verse 20. - The Lord was ready to save me; rather, came to my rescue; came and saved me. Therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments; rather, therefore will we play my stringed instruments. Hezekiah calls the stringed instruments his, because he had recalled their use, and re-established them as a part of the temple service after the suspension of that service by Ahaz (2 Chronicles 29:30). His intention now is to take continual part with the Levites in (he choral praises of God, which were a part of the daily worship of the temple. This is to him the natural mode of expressing his thankfulness to God for the mercy vouchsafed him.
For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaister upon the boil, and he shall recover.
Verse 21. - For Isaiah had said; literally, and Isaiah said. It seems as if this verse and the next had been accidentally omitted from their proper place in the narrative, which was between vers. 6 and 7, and had then been appended by an after-thought. They reproduce nearly, but not exactly, the words of 2 Kings 19:7, 8. Let them take a lump of figs. This remedy is said to be one still employed in the East for the cure of ordinary boils; but it must have been quite insufficient for the cure of such a dangerous tumour, or carbuncle, as that from which Hezekiah was suffering. In miraculous cures, both the Old Testament prophets and our Lord himself frequently employed a means, insufficient in itself, but supernaturally rendered sufficient, to effect the intended purpose (see 1 Kings 17:21; 2 Kings 4:35, 41, 5:14; John 9:6; Mark 7:33; Mark 8:23, etc.). Upon the boil. The term here translated "boil" is used in Exodus (Exodus 9:9-11) for the affliction which constituted the sixth plague, in Leviticus (Leviticus 13:18-23) for an ulcer accompanying one of the worst forms of leprosy, in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 28:27, 35) for "the botch of Egypt," and in Job (Job 2:7) for the last of the visitations from which he suffered. It is not unlikely that it was of a leprous character.
Hezekiah also had said, What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the LORD?
Verse 22. - Hezekiah also had said; literally, and Hezekiah said. Our translators, both in this verse and at the commencement of ver. 21, have endeavoured to conceal the awkwardness of the nexus, or rather want of nexus, with what precedes, by a modification of the rendering. The true sense is brought out by the proceeding, which is, however, a little arbitrary.

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