Isaiah 38
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 38 Hezekiah’s Sickness and Recovery

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.
1. In those days] The incident must have preceded by some months the embassy of Merodach-Baladan, the probable date of which will be considered in the Introduction to ch. 39. The order of the chapters cannot be chronological, and the vague expression “in those days” need not perhaps mean more than “in the time of Hezekiah.” If, as Delitzsch and others have supposed, ch. 38 f. stood before 36 f. in the original document, the note of time would naturally refer to some other events in Isaiah’s biography which had been previously narrated. The best justification of this hypothesis is the solution it furnishes of the chronological difficulties presented by this group of chapters.

Set thine house in order] Lit. “Give commandment to thy house,” the last duty of a dying man (2 Samuel 17:23). An example of what is meant may be found in David’s elaborate death-bed charge to Solomon (1 Kings 2:1-9).

Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD,
2. turned his face toward the wall] (cf. 1 Kings 21:4) an instinctive expression of the feeling that he was alone with God in this bitter moment.

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.
3. with a perfect heart] Lit. “with a whole heart,” one absolutely devoted to Jehovah. Cf. 1 Kings 8:61; 1 Kings 11:4; 1 Kings 15:3; 1 Kings 15:14, where the expression occurs with the addition of the words “with Jehovah.” The motive of this prayer is clearly expressed in the Song of Thanksgiving which follows (see Isaiah 38:11; Isaiah 38:18-19).

Then came the word of the LORD to Isaiah, saying,
4. In 2 Kings 20:4 we read that “afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court,” this message came to him. So quickly was the king’s prayer answered. A somewhat similar instance of the revocation of one prophetic communication by another is that of Nathan in the matter of the building of the Temple (2 Samuel 7:3-4 ff.).

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.
5. The verse is greatly abbreviated from 2 Kings 20:5. After Hezekiah the words “the captain of my people” are omitted; and also the sentence “I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord,” which follows the word behold. It cannot be doubted that the historical book here preserves the original text.

the God of David thy father] for whose sake this special mercy is vouchsafed to the king (cf. ch. Isaiah 37:35; 2 Kings 20:6).

fifteen years] That the number was arrived at by calculation on the part of the historian is not to be believed. If there be calculation in the case at all, it is in the date of ch. Isaiah 36:1, which may very possibly be an inference from this prediction combined with the statement of 2 Kings 18:2. (See on ch. Isaiah 36:1) In any case the assumption that the prophecy was exactly fulfilled is a legitimate one, and the fourteenth year of Hezekiah must be accepted as the true date of this sickness. The only question is whether the writer of ch. Isaiah 36:1 may not have fallen into error by supposing that the date of Hezekiah’s sickness fixed the time of Sennacherib’s invasion. On that point see the Chronological Note, pp. lxxvi f. Since the king began to reign in his twenty-fifth year, it is after all not a long life that is here promised to him. His reign was to be doubled.

And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.
6. This is the only verse which would lead us to suppose that the events synchronised with Sennacherib’s invasion; but its genuineness is doubtful. An unqualified assurance of deliverance is hardly consistent with the prophet’s attitude to the king’s policy at the time supposed. Hezekiah was deeply committed to projects of rebellion in the first years of Sennacherib’s reign, and a political message from Isaiah in those circumstances could hardly fail to be accompanied by a warning against the tendency which prevailed at the court. Since the verse breaks the connexion between Isaiah 38:5; Isaiah 38:7, and since the latter part is a reproduction (in 2 Kings an exact reproduction) of ch. Isaiah 37:35, there are some grounds for supposing that it has been inserted by the compiler of the books of Kings.

And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken;
7, 8. After Isaiah 38:6, 2 Kings describes the prophet’s prescription for the malady (see on Isaiah 38:21). The account of the sign also is given in a much fuller form there. It was granted at the express request of the king (see Isaiah 38:22), who had not his father’s fear of “tempting the Lord” (ch. Isaiah 7:12). Allowed to choose between a “going forward” and a “going backward” of the shadow, he decided for the latter as not so “light” a thing (i.e. less conceivable); when, at Isaiah’s intercession, the desired thing happened.

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.
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.

The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness:
9. The writing of Hezekiah] According to some commentators we should read “A Michtam of Hezekiah” (changing a letter in the Hebr.).

The word Michtam occurs in the titles of Psalms 16, 56-60; but is of uncertain derivation and meaning.

9–20. Hezekiah’s thanksgiving for his recovery. This poem, which is not given in the parallel narrative in 2 Kings, must have been inserted here from an independent source. An external mark of the insertion is found in the displacement of Isaiah 38:21-22 from their proper context. The superscription (Isaiah 38:9) resembles several of those in the book of Psalms, and was no doubt found in the document from which the poem was transcribed. The song, therefore, was in all probability traditionally ascribed to Hezekiah, but whether this judgment rests on historical authority, or merely on its inherent suitability to his circumstances, it is impossible to say. The linguistic evidence seems to point to a late date. The poem, like many of the Psalms, is a record of individual experience, but adapted for use in the Temple worship (Isaiah 38:20). The experience is that of a man who has been brought face to face with death, who has prayed for life, and has been “heard in that he feared”; but with the reticence which characterises the Psalmists all details of merely personal interest are suppressed with a view to the liturgical use of the poem.

The psalm may be divided into two parts (both indicated in the superscription, Isaiah 38:9):—

i. Isaiah 38:10-14. A description of the writer’s anguish and despair in the near prospect of death.

ii. Isaiah 38:15-20. His joy and gratitude when assured of his recovery.

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.
10. in the cutting off of my days] R.V. In the noontide of my days (lit. “in the stillness of my days”). The phrase has been variously interpreted; but the best sense is that given by the R.V., whether the noon be conceived as the time of rest, or (as in an Arabic idiom) the time when the sun seems to stand still in the heavens. Hezekiah was at the time in his thirty-ninth year. (Cf. “in the midst of my days,” Psalm 102:24.)

the gates of the grave (lit. of Sheol)] Cf. Job 38:17; Psalm 9:13; Psalm 107:18.

I am deprived (lit. “punished”) of the residue of my years] The verb for “be punished” does not elsewhere bear the sense of “be mulcted” as it must do in this translation. Duhm, with a different division of the verse, renders as follows:—

“I said, In the noon-tide of my days I must depart;

I am consigned (cf. Jeremiah 37:21) to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.”

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.
11. Death is the end of all communion both with God and men. To see the Lord is to enjoy the sense of His presence in the appointed acts of worship (see on ch. Isaiah 1:12), The thought that Sheol afforded no such opportunities of converse with the living God was that which made death a terror to O.T. believers (cf. Isaiah 38:18; Psalm 88:5, &c.).

the inhabitants of the world] The received text has “the inhabitants of cessation” (ḥedel), i.e. “of the place where life ceases,” an expression for the underworld. The reading ḥeled (“the world”) is found in some Heb. MSS.; and is rightly preferred by A.V.

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.
12. Figures setting forth the utter frustration of his hope of life. The first is that of a nomad’s tent, easily pitched and soon removed.

Mine age is departed] Render: My habitation is plucked up (Cheyne). The sense “habitation” is Aramaic and Arabic, and does not occur again in the Bible (but see on ch. Isaiah 53:8). Elsewhere the word means “generation,” in the sense of “contemporaries,” which is obviously unsuitable here. Then follow two figures from weaving.

I have cut off] Rather: I have rolled up (R.V.) as the weaver does the finished web. with pining sickness] should be (as in R.V. marg.) from the thrum, the threads by which the web is attached to the loom.

from day even to night] i.e. apparently “within twenty-four hours.”

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.
13. I reckoned till morning] R.V. has “I quieted myself until morning.” It is better to amend the text slightly and read I cried until morning.

so will he break (better, he breaketh) all my bones] the crushing effect of pain. Cf. Lamentations 3:4.

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.
14. Like a crane or a swallow] Rather, as R.V., Like a swallow or a crane. Both words occur again only in Jeremiah 8:7. The want of a copula in Heb., and the unsuitability of the verb “chirp” (E.V. “chatter”) to the note of the crane suggests that the latter may have been imported into the text from the passage in Jeremiah. It is wanting in the LXX.

I did mourn as a dove] Cf. ch. Isaiah 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16; Nahum 2:7.

with looking upward] lit. toward the height, where Jehovah dwells.

undertake for me] become surety for me (Job 17:3). The image is that of a debtor who is being committed to prison.

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.
15, 16. Two extremely difficult verses. As commonly explained, Isaiah 38:15 introduces the second half of the song with an exclamation of amazement at the wonderful deliverance experienced. Literally it reads:

“What shall I say? And He said to me—and He (emphatic) did it;

I shall walk with leisurely pace all my years—because of the bitterness of my soul.”

The words he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it would refer to the promise of recovery through the prophet, and the fulfilment of it. This whole conception of the verse is vigorously criticised by Duhm, who renders thus:—

“What shall I speak and say to Him—since He has done it?

I toss to and fro all my sleeping time—because of the bitterness of my soul.”

The Hebr. word rendered “toss to and fro” is found again only in Psalm 42:4, where it means “to walk in festal procession.” Duhm in this passage is disposed to connect it with a noun found in Job 7:4 (“tossings to and fro”).

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.
16. The thought expressed by E.V. is somewhat as follows: “By such Divine words and deeds (Isaiah 38:15) men are preserved in life; and by such things my spirit is revived.” No one will say that this is either good Hebrew or a natural sense; and the text is almost certainly corrupt. The verb “live” closely resembles an Aramaic verb (ḥivvâh occurring several times in the O.T.) meaning “to declare”; and this was evidently read by LXX.: περὶ αὐτῆς γὰρ ἀνηγγέλη σοι. Starting with this, Duhm makes the verse read:

“Lord, of this doth my heart make mention to Thee,

Give rest to my spirit and recover me, &c.”

His emendations however are somewhat sweeping.

so wilt thou … live] The first verb is impf. (fut.), the second imperat. recover me is literally “give me health.”

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.
17. Behold, for peace … bitterness) (lit. “it was bitter to me, bitter”), i.e. the bitterness of affliction was mercifully overruled so as to yield “peaceable fruit” through his recovery (cf. Hebrews 12:11).

but thou hast in love … pit] Lit. (according to the Hebrew text) “and thou hast loved my soul out of the pit …”—a pregnant construction of perhaps unexampled boldness. The true reading probably is “thou hast kept back my soul, &c.” (ḥâsaktâ for ḥâshaqtâ).

For pit of corruption render pit of annihilation.

cast … behind thy back] An image for utter forgetfulness: 1 Kings 14:9; Nehemiah 9:26; Psalm 50:17. The Psalmist recognises in his deliverance the pledge that his sins are forgiven and forgotten.

For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
18. With the thought of this verse comp. Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:9; Psalm 88:10-12; Psalm 115:17.

the grave] Sheol.

18, 19. The deepest motive for the saint’s gratitude is that only on earth can he know the joys of fellowship with God.

The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.
19. the father … truth] Cf. Psalm 22:30; Psalm 48:13-14; Psalm 71:18; Psalm 78:3-4.

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.
20. Perhaps a liturgical appendix, adapting the psalm for congregational use. Hence the transition from 1st pers. sing, to 1st pers. plu.

we will sing … instruments] Rather, we will play with string music (“we” including the Levites or the congregation). The word for “string music” is Něgînôth, which occurs frequently in the headings of the Psalms. Here and in Habakkuk 3:9 it has the suffix of 1st pers. sing. (“my”), which it is very difficult to explain.

For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaister upon the boil, and he shall recover.
21. lay it for a plaister] Lit. rub it. Lump should be cake, as in R.V. Many commentators suppose that the malady from which Hezekiah suffered was the plague; and Gesenius explains that the appearance of the “boil” would be a hopeful, though not a certain, symptom of recovery. He adds that the application of figs is resorted to by modern Arabian and Turkish physicians in cases of pestilence.

21, 22. Cf. 2 Kings 20:7-8. The verses are obviously out of their true places here. The pluperfects in the English Translation are ungrammatical (Driver, Tenses, pp. 84 ff.), and we must render And Isaiah said … And Hezekiah said.

Hezekiah also had said, What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the LORD?
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