Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible 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.
Isa 38:1-22. Hezekiah's Sickness; Perhaps Connected with the Plague or Blast Whereby the Assyrian Army Had Been Destroyed.
1. Set … house in order—Make arrangement as to the succession to the throne; for he had then no son; and as to thy other concerns.
thou shall die—speaking according to the ordinary course of the disease. His being spared fifteen years was not a change in God's mind, but an illustration of God's dealings being unchangeably regulated by the state of man in relation to Him.
Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD,
2. The couches in the East run along the walls of houses. He turned away from the spectators to hide his emotion and collect his thoughts for prayer.
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. He mentions his past religious consistency, not as a boast or a ground for justification; but according to the Old Testament dispensation, wherein temporal rewards (as long life, &c., Ex 20:12) followed legal obedience, he makes his religious conduct a plea for asking the prolongation of his life.
walked—Life is a journey; the pious "walk with God" (Ge 5:24; 1Ki 9:4).
perfect—sincere; not absolutely perfect, but aiming towards it (Mt 5:45); single-minded in walking as in the presence of God (Ge 17:1). The letter of the Old Testament legal righteousness was, however, a standard very much below the spirit of the law as unfolded by Christ (Mt 5:20-48; 2Co 3:6, 14, 17).
wept sore—Josephus says, the reason why he wept so sorely was that being childless, he was leaving the kingdom without a successor. How often our wishes, when gratified, prove curses! Hezekiah lived to have a son; that son was the idolater Manasseh, the chief cause of God's wrath against Judah, and of the overthrow of the kingdom (2Ki 23:26, 27).
Then came the word of the LORD to Isaiah, saying,
4. In 2Ki 20:4, the quickness of God's answer to the prayer is marked, "afore Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him"; that is, before he had left Hezekiah, or at least when he had just left him, and Hezekiah was in the act of praying after having heard God's message by Isaiah (compare Isa 65:24; Ps 32:5; Da 9:21).
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. God of David thy father—God remembers the covenant with the father to the children (Ex 20:5; Ps 89:28, 29).
days … years—Man's years, however many, are but as so many days (Ge 5:27).
And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.
6. In 2Ki 20:8, after this verse comes the statement which is put at the end, in order not to interrupt God's message (Isa 38:21, 22) by Isaiah (Isa 38:5-8).
will deliver—The city was already delivered, but here assurance is given, that Hezekiah shall have no more to fear from the Assyrians.
And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken;
7. sign—a token that God would fulfil His promise that Hezekiah should "go up into the house of the Lord the third day" (2Ki 20:5, 8); the words in italics are not in Isaiah.
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. 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).
The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness:
9-20. The prayer and thanksgiving song of Hezekiah is only given here, not in the parallel passages of Second Kings and Second Chronicles. Isa 38:9 is the heading or inscription.
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. cutting off—Rosenmuller translates, "the meridian"; when the sun stands in the zenith: so "the perfect day" (Pr 4:18). Rather, "in the tranquillity of my days," that is, that period of life when I might now look forward to a tranquil reign [Maurer]. The Hebrew is so translated (Isa 62:6, 7).
go to—rather, "go into," as in Isa 46:2 [Maurer].
residue of my years—those which I had calculated on. God sends sickness to teach man not to calculate on the morrow, but to live more wholly to God, as if each day were the last.
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. Lord … Lord—The repetition, as in Isa 38:19, expresses the excited feeling of the king's mind.
See the Lord (Jehovah)—figuratively for "to enjoy His good gifts." So, in a similar connection (Ps 27:13). "I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living"; (Ps 34:12), "What man is he that desireth life that he may see good?"
world—rather, translate: "among the inhabitants of the land of stillness," that is, Hades [Maurer], in parallel antithesis to "the land of the living" in the first clause. The Hebrew comes from a root, to "rest" or "cease" (Job 14:6).
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. age—rather, as the parallel "shepherd's tent" requires habitation, so the Arabic [Gesenius].
departed—is broken up, or shifted, as a tent to a different locality. The same image occurs (2Co 5:1; 2Pe 1:12, 13). He plainly expects to exist, and not cease to be in another state; as the shepherd still lives, after he has struck his tent and removed elsewhere.
I have cut off—He attributes to himself that which is God's will with respect to him; because he declares that will. So Jeremiah is said to "root out" kingdoms, because he declares God's purpose of doing so (Jer 1:10). The weaver cuts off his web from the loom when completed. Job 7:6 has a like image. The Greeks represented the Fates as spinning and cutting off the threads of each man's life.
with pining sickness—rather, "from the thrum," or thread, which tied the loom to the weaver's beam.
from day … to night—that is, in the space of a single day between morning and night (Job 4:20).
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 … that—rather, I composed (my mind, during the night, expecting relief in the "morning," so Job 7:4): for ("that" is not, as in the English Version, to be supplied) as a lion He was breaking all my bones [Vitringa] (Job 10:16; La 3:10, 11). The Hebrew, in Ps 131:2, is rendered, "I quieted." Or else, "I made myself like a lion (namely, in roaring, through pain), He was so breaking my bones!" Poets often compare great groaning to a lion's roaring, so, Isa 38:14, he compares his groans to the sounds of other animals (Ps 22:1) [Maurer].
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. Rather, "Like a swallow, or a crane" (from a root; "to disturb the water," a bird frequenting the water) [Maurer], (Jer 8:7).
chatter—twitter: broken sounds expressive of pain.
dove—called by the Arabs the daughter of mourning, from its plaintive note (Isa 59:11).
looking upward—to God for relief.
undertake for—literally, "be surety for" me; assure me that I shall be restored (Ps 119:122).
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.
15-20. The second part of the song passes from prayer to thanksgiving at the prayer being heard.
What shall I say?—the language of one at a loss for words to express his sense of the unexpected deliverance.
both spoken … and … done it—(Nu 23:19). Both promised and performed (1Th 5:24; Heb 10:23).
himself—No one else could have done it (Ps 98:1).
go softly … in the bitterness—rather, "on account of the bitterness"; I will behave myself humbly in remembrance of my past sorrow and sickness from which I have been delivered by God's mercy (see 1Ki 21:27, 29). In Ps 42:4, the same Hebrew verb expresses the slow and solemn gait of one going up to the house of God; it is found nowhere else, hence Rosenmuller explains it, "I will reverently attend the sacred festivals in the temple"; but this ellipsis would be harsh; rather metaphorically the word is transferred to a calm, solemn, and submissive walk of life.
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. by these—namely, by God's benefits, which are implied in the context (Isa 38:15, "He hath Himself done it" "unto me"). All "men live by these" benefits (Ps 104:27-30), "and in all these is the life of my spirit," that is, I also live by them (De 8:3).
and (wilt) make me to live—The Hebrew is imperative, "make me to live." In this view he adds a prayer to the confident hope founded on his comparative convalescence, which he expressed, "Thou wilt recover me" [Maurer].
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. for peace—instead of the prosperity which I had previously.
great bitterness—literally, "bitterness to me, bitterness"; expressing intense emotion.
in love—literally, "attachment," such as joins one to another tenderly; "Thou hast been lovingly attached to me from the pit"; pregnant phrase for, Thy love has gone down to the pit, and drawn me out from it. The "pit" is here simply death, in Hezekiah's sense; realized in its fulness only in reference to the soul's redemption from hell by Jesus Christ (Isa 61:1), who went down to the pit for that purpose Himself (Ps 88:4-6; Zec 9:11, 12; Heb 13:20). "Sin" and sickness are connected (Ps 103:3; compare Isa 53:4, with Mt 8:17; 9:5, 6), especially under the Old Testament dispensation of temporal sanctions; but even now, sickness, though not invariably arising from sin in individuals, is connected with it in the general moral view.
cast … behind back—consigned my sins to oblivion. The same phrase occurs (1Ki 14:9; Ne 9:26; Ps 50:17). Contrast Ps 90:8, "Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance."
For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
18. death—that is, the dead; Hades and its inhabitants (Job 28:22; see on Isa 38:11). Plainly Hezekiah believed in a world of disembodied spirits; his language does not imply what skepticism has drawn from it, but simply that he regarded the disembodied state as one incapable of declaring the praises of God before men, for it is, as regards this world, an unseen land of stillness; "the living" alone can praise God on earth, in reference to which only he is speaking; Isa 57:1, 2 shows that at this time the true view of the blessedness of the righteous dead was held, though not with the full clearness of the Gospel, which "has brought life and immortality to light" (2Ti 1:10).
hope for thy truth—(Ps 104:27). Their probation is at an end. They can no longer exercise faith and hope in regard to Thy faithfulness to Thy promises, which are limited to the present state. For "hope" ceases (even in the case of the godly) when sight begins (Ro 8:24, 25); the ungodly have "no hope" (1Th 4:13). Hope in God's truth is one of the grounds of praise to God (Ps 71:14; 119:49). Others translate, "cannot celebrate."
The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.
19. living … living—emphatic repetition, as in Isa 38:11, 17; his heart is so full of the main object of his prayer that, for want of adequate words, he repeats the same word.
father to the children—one generation of the living to another. He probably, also, hints at his own desire to live until he should have a child, the successor to his throne, to whom he might make known and so perpetuate the memory of God's truth.
truth—faithfulness to His promises; especially in Hezekiah's case, His promise of hearing prayer.
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. was ready—not in the Hebrew; "Jehovah was for my salvation," that is, saved me (compare Isa 12:2).
we—I and my people.
in the house of the Lord—This song was designed, as many of the other Psalms, as a form to be used in public worship at stated times, perhaps on every anniversary of his recovery; hence "all the days of our life."
lump of figs—a round cake of figs pressed into a mass (1Sa 25:18). God works by means; the meanest of which He can make effectual.
boil—inflamed ulcer, produced by the plague.
For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaister upon the boil, and he shall recover.
Hezekiah also had said, What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the LORD?
22. house of the Lord—Hence he makes the praises to be sung there prominent in his song (Isa 38:20; Ps 116:12-14, 17-19).