In the last essay we studied 37:8-38. In this one we study 38:1-39:8 and complete a major section of Isaiah. In verses 1-3, we see that Hezekiah, who becomes quite ill, pours out his heart to God (as opposed to raging or withdrawing). He is still young. According to John Oswalt, he was about 39. And he had walked before God faithfully.
We see God’s answer in verses 4-8. 2 Kings 20:4 tells us that Isaiah hadn’t gotten out of the palace yet, when God told him to go back to Hezekiah and give him God’s answer. Since this took place about 701 BC, it seems that Isaiah was drawing a parallel between the saving of Hezekiah’s life and the saving of Jerusalem.
It is not known what the steps referred to here were. They could have been an actual staircase, or some sort of device for telling time. I agree with Oswalt that the “sign” had to involve some kind of local phenomenon, rather than a reversal of the earth’s rotation.
Verses 9-20 consist of a psalm that Hezekiah wrote that Isaiah decided to include in his account. Hezekiah had learned that we cannot take life for granted. We can only be sure of today, and perhaps not all of it. He thought he was headed for Sheol (v. 10). In verses 12-13 Hezekiah used two graphic similes. The shepherd picks up his tent and moves; the weaver finishes his rug, rolls it up, and leaves. Both illustrate the impermanence of life. The last clause of verses 12 and 13 likely is proverbial and means between morning and evening, that is, suddenly. The idea is that he groaned for help through the night, but in the morning the lion still was breaking his bones.
Verses 14-15 continue to express Hezekiah’s sense of helplessness, but he keeps praying. The “it” in the sentence “he himself has done it” could refer to his healing, in which case, Hezekiah is asking how to respond to the healing. The sentence also could be an expression of resignation. It is impossible to know which is the case, though because of the reference to “bitterness” in 15d, the context favors the latter. The NIV and Oswalt favor a reading in 15c of, “I will walk slowly” instead of “All my sleep has fled.” The idea is that Hezekiah would live humbly and gratefully during whatever time he had remaining.
No one is sure what Hezekiah meant by “these things” in verse 16. The verse seems to confirm that Hezekiah was expressing his pre-healing feelings in the psalm, at least up to this point. At any rate, he records how he prayed for healing.
Then at verse 17 I believe Hezekiah shifts to his post-healing situation. He expresses gratitude that he has been delivered from the pit. He also mentions that God has cast Hezekiah’s sins behind God’s own back, which seems to suggest that Hezekiah thought his illness was due to his sins and that the bitterness it brought into his life turned out to be a blessing.
Verses 18-19 contain classic Old Testament theology. The Old Testament teaches that the dead do not praise God. Rather it is the living who show gratitude to the Lord and make known to their children the faithfulness of God. Of course that is different from New Testament theology. The New Testament declares that dead believers in Jesus do praise God.
Finally, in verse 20, Hezekiah indicates that he is grateful, because he knew himself to be a dead man; and now he is alive. And he will sing praise in the temple for the rest of his life.
Verses 21-22 provide some additional information. Verse 21 tells us that one of the symptoms of Hezekiah’s disease was a boil and that Isaiah had prescribed a poultice of figs for its healing. And verse 22 informs us that Hezekiah had requested the “sign” of verses 7-8 that the sun’s shadow would move back ten steps.
Isaiah changes the subject in chapter 39. The Babylonians would have wanted to encourage any rebellions against Assyria in the West, because that would have relieved pressure on Babylon in the East. So that probably was the reason for their delegation’s visit.
As you can see, Hezekiah decided to show off. Then Isaiah shows up, unbidden, a privilege that independent prophets seemed to have in Israel. Isaiah asked Hezekiah who the visitors were and what they saw. Hezekiah told him, and then Isaiah announced that some day, all of the treasures that Hezekiah had shown the Babylonians would be carried off to Babylon (v. 6).
Then Isaiah went on to say that Hezekiah’s sons (really grandsons with several greats before the word, because the Babylonian exile came more than a hundred years later) also would be taken to Babylon as eunuchs in the Babylonian king’s palace. Of course that meant that they would be emasculated, which had powerful implications for Hezekiah’s royal line (v. 7).
Commentators are divided in regard to the interpretation of verse eight. Some see the verse as casting Hezekiah’s response in a favorable light, and others see it as placing him in an unfavorable light. Those who see it as favorable say that Hezekiah responded that God’s word is good, even though it was harsh in regard to him (8a).
On the other hand, those who see it as unfavorable say that the reason Hezekiah said God’s harsh word was good was because there would be peace and security during his lifetime, that is, the evil wasn’t going to happen during his lifetime (8b).
Two lessons that we might point to are these. First, God sometimes does miraculously intervene in our lives in answer to prayer. Hezekiah prayed that God might heal his serious sickness and enable him to live. And the Lord gave him 15 more years. We know from experience that such miraculous interventions by God are somewhat rare. But we always should pray for our needs, whether physical or otherwise, because God will answer. His answers are not always what we hope for, but we can trust him to do what is best in every situation.
Second, when we relate to others, we must use the wisdom and common sense that God has given us. Hezekiah foolishly revealed to the envoys from Babylon everything about his kingdom. And in the end it meant disaster for his country.