The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
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.The Blasphemy of Rabshakeh
The prophecies of Isaiah constitute a threefold division: first, Isaiah 1-35; second, Isaiah 36-39; third, Isaiah 40-46. We have just considered the noble words which formed the peroration of Isaiah's political eloquence. The four chapters (Isaiah chapters 36-39), were possibly not written by Isaiah himself; they may, it is thought, have been appended by some disciple or editor in the time of Ezra. In proper chronology Isaiah 38, Isaiah 39 should come first. For our purpose it will be enough to pause here and there at some point of direct spiritual utility. For example, here is a man, a chief officer or cupbearer, Rabshakeh by name, who represents the king of Assyria, and embodies the brutality and blasphemy which have ever distinguished the enemies of truth and righteousness. Rabshakeh began his communications with Hezekiah by a taunt. He reminded the king that he had trusted in the staff of a broken reed, that is, upon Egypt; "whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him" (Isaiah 36:6). Rabshakeh had the advantage of truth on this occasion, and he wished to push it to undue uses or extract from it fallacious inferences, on the supposition that Hezekiah being able to confirm his testimony upon one point would be predisposed to accept it on another. Rabshakeh offered to lay a wager when he said, "Now therefore give pledges" (Isaiah 36:8). The proposition is marked by extreme ludicrousness, being nothing less than to find two thousand horses for the use of Hezekiah if the king on his part should be able to set riders upon them. This was the taunt of defiance; this has about it all the brutality of men who know that their proud offers cannot be accepted. Where there is great weakness on the one side, it is easy to boast of great pomp and power on the other.
Rabshakeh continued his empty boast either personally or representatively, when he said, "I now come up without the Lord against this land to destroy it" (Isaiah 36:10). Here we have an instance of a perverted truth. Isaiah had distinctly taught that it was Jehovah himself who had brought the king of Assyria into Judah, and they who were opposed to the people of God were prepared to say that such being the case it was evident that the king of Assyria was really the representative of the God of heaven, and now Rabshakeh or the king of Assyria may be said to assume the character of a defender of the faith.
Rabshakeh made a bold appeal to the people when he said, "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards" (Isaiah 36:16-17). How eloquent was Rabshakeh in the telling of lies! Hezekiah's people had only to leave the besieged city, and to go into the Assyrian camp, and they would be allowed the greatest privileges; thus Rabshakeh adds the torment of sarcasm to the sufferings of war, and actually proposes to the people to accept the doom of exile as if it were a change for the better! It is supposed that the taunt and the promise may perhaps be connected with Senra-cherib's boast that he had made the water supply of the cities of his empire.
Everything depends upon when that notice comes. Often the tenant of the body has been known to long for the termination of his lease. Hezekiah was not in that position, and he had no right to be in it. To have cut him off then would certainly have been to deprive him of the residue of his years, as he himself complains. Here is a man who was warned of his approaching death. Is there any peculiar significance in the announcement? There ought not to be. All life is a warning that we are going to die. Life is but a variety of death, so far as the body is concerned. We bring into the world with us the writing of dissolution, and if we live a day it is a marvel. We were born to die. Yet how wonderful it is that no man believes this in any practical sense, though every one acknowledges it as a commonplace,—yea, if it were told him that man is mortal he would smile upon the speaker as a person who was accustomed to utter truisms. As if it could ever be a truism that man must die! But we can debase anything: we can turn the sunlight to foul purposes; we can, so to say, harness the very lights of heaven, and make them take us down the wrong road. So it: has come to ass, in our familiarity with the most solemn music that to say man must die is to utter a platitude. There is no platitude in death; when it comes it turns the commonplace into a surprise, a terror, a joy, a revelation. We should beware how we make unnecessary commonplaces in the literature of life, Better find out the inner, secret, deepest meaning of things, and abide by that, not heeding the foolish prating that would take us away into meanings that have no direct bearing upon the dignity, utility, and destiny of human life.
Not only was Hezekiah warned of his approaching dissolution, he was religiously warned. Isaiah was the man who was charged with the intelligence. How much depends upon the man who speaks to us when the message is soul-harrowing, distressing, fatal! But did Isaiah always speak with the right accent? Has not even Isaiah been charged with occasional harshness of tone? Was he upon this occasion somewhat exasperated with Hezekiah, and did he announce the intelligence rather abruptly than sympathetically? That we can never determine. The great fact we have to deal with is that the dissolution of man is religiously announced. It is not the physician who has found out that man must die, for whilst he is shaping that very sentence he himself drops down and is dead. That man must die is a religious announcement, a spiritual prophecy. Mortality is taught from heaven. We should, therefore, look for the religious acceptation of the intelligence. Every man knows that dogs die, that the beasts of the field were made to be slaughtered for man's use: but when man dies the revelation must not be made to him as a piece of scientific intelligence, it must be spoken to him tenderly, solemnly, religiously, in a tone that means prayer, though there be no direct attitude of adoration and suppliancy. This is the great function of the religious prophets of the age. When they declare unto us that we must die, they deliver but half their message, nay, they do but begin to call attention to their message, for they are not sent to announce death only, but thus to awaken interest, solicitude, anxiety, and then to reply to all the yearning which they have excited and inspired, telling the souls who are thus aroused to attention what God is, and what life is, and what there is just behind the blue screen, the frail trembling curtain that we can almost see through. When the Church undertakes that business it will always draw around itself men in their best estate; the flippant and the frivolous and the worldly may not be there, but sober-minded men, men who have been chastened by much experience, men who want to know the reality of things, will be there, not to be affrighted, but to be attuned, prepared, and qualified for higher society.
Not only was Hezekiah warned, and religiously warned; he was considerately warned. He was not to die on the morrow, he was to have time to set his house in order. Sometimes we feel as if we would rather not have that time, and yet there is a merciful dispensation in the arrangement which gives a man an opportunity of calmly approaching the end. Sometimes we long to be stricken down, and taken up to heaven instantaneously: but what of those who survive; what of the shock, the pain, the distress, the demoralisation, of those who are thus suddenly themselves struck with a living death? Men should always be ordering their house with a view to the end. The modern phrase would be—Make your will: arrange your affairs: die wisely. Yet every man has notice. So we began, so we must continue. Who waits for a special message from heaven, saying, Tomorrow thou shalt die? Every day is dying day; every day is birth day; every day is New Year's day; every day is Chrisl:'s anniversary: we do amiss to put things away at a time-distance, to write them down upon a calendar many pages thick: better bring into immediate view and realisation all the points of time that throb with spiritual inference, that burn with spiritual significance, so that we may walk wisely, safely, hopefully, and yet with a subdued triumphing, all the days of our life. Is it a surprise to you that you are going to die? It should be the best ascertained fact in all experience. "Every beating pulse we tell leaves but the number less." This is universally acknowledged, and yet universally trifled with: we do not want the acknowledgment, but the answer to it, in all steadfastness of faith, in all beneficence of life, in all sacred industry, in beneficent occupations. He is best prepared to die who is best prepared to live. He who lives well is always expecting death and always welcoming it, not in any fearful sense, but in the sense in which the slave expects the emancipator, the prisoner expects the knock on his door to announce that his release is at hand: in that sense men may live, and so living they die, yet cannot die. These are only literal contradictions, they are spiritual music, perfect entrancing harmony.
But Hezekiah's life was prolonged; he had an interview with the Giver of life—
"Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, 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" (Isaiah 38:2-3).
Hezekiah's life was prolonged; the shadow on the dial was turned back. It was a wonderful dial; it was the dial of Ahaz, mayhap a mural dial, visible to Hezekiah when he lay in his sick-chamber; he may have actually seen the shadow going back. Some say it was a prolonged after-glow. Why trifle with the miracle? We know nothing about it, we have no answer to it; the Lord has given the fact, he has not given the explanation. Call it, if you please, a long eventime, a prolonged sunset So be it. Did the man live after it? As a matter of fact, we know, according to history, that he did live after it, and became the father of his successor upon the throne of Judah, and did many wonderful things. That is enough. As to dial and shadow and miracle, these must be to us symbolical of a providence which is mighty enough to do all these little things, and which has been doing in all the ages works compared with which these things are but trifles. Granting the almightiness of God, we need have no difficulty as to anything that has taken place; granting that God was before all things, and is above all things, and holds all things in the hollow of his hand, it ought to be easy for us to believe that he has done nothing but wonders, that miracles are the commonplaces of his government, and that to do aught but miracles would be to be less than God.
Here we must abide as to all such transactions or occurrences, for he who wishes to explain them simply wishes to be wise above that which is written.
How interesting it is to discover what Hezekiah really felt when he was in the pit of humiliation, and going down into the pit of corruption! A wondrous pensiveness there is in his tone:—
"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. 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" (Isaiah 38:10-11).
How Hezekiah found in all the nature round about him just what he wanted in his mood of dejection!—"Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove" (Isaiah 38:14). He takes this, however, as an example of what he himself felt, when their voice of mourning was heard. Instead of "a swallow" read "the swift"—"like a crane or the swift.... Then I did mourn as a dove." We hear what we want to hear. Nature will help us in any mood. Sweet mother, sweet nurse, best, tenderest of friends, next to the Father! Nature herself seems to be always speaking in a minor tone; here and there, and now, and once more, she may break into loud and vivacious singing, but when she is, so to say, left to herself, how she lowers her voice, how she sobs and moans, and comes down to human sorrow, as if to claim kinship with all the griefs of the heart! Call her mother, and go as near worshipping her as you can, for she is the garment and tenement of God.
Hezekiah said, "O Lord... undertake for me:" literally, be surety for me; death has come to claim his bill, and I do not want to pay it, I want to live: speak to him, undertake to be my surety; tell him that he shall have me by-and-by, but let it be a long by-and-by: Lord, step into the breach, satisfy the death claim, and give me a broad margin of life. This was the appeal of Hezekiah. He said, "Behold, for peace I had great bitterness" (Isaiah 38:17). This misrepresents the thought of the man; it should be otherwise—namely, thus:—through great bitterness I got peace. The aloes was a bitter medicine, but what good it wrought, how it operated like a tonic, how it made me healthier and stronger altogether! I got peace through bitterness: "Thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption,"—literally, thou hast loved me out of the pit, drawn me by love out of the pit of corruption. This was the experience of Hezekiah. It may be our experience. The purpose of God's love is to draw us away from all pits, dejections, humiliations, prostrations, and to give us life, vigour, triumph, sense and guarantee of immortality.
"The living, the living, he shall praise thee" (Isaiah 38:19). That is the object of life. If we are using life for any other end, we are misusing it; we are arrested as felons in creation. Life is a sacred thing, a religious gift, a holy trust, and it is handed to us that we may make it an instrument of divine praise. Marvellous life! no man has seen it; it will not be looked at. It may be seen in incarnation, in temporary form, in some transient phase, but itself will never be gazed upon. Men have attempted to surprise life, but they have always failed in their endeavour. They have said, Let us quietly withdraw the veil, and see the angel. They have withdrawn the veil, and lost their labour. No man ever yet saw his own pulse. Tear off the skin, open all that wondrous mechanism,—where is it? Gone! It will not be found, touched, weighed, painted. You can paint form, but you cannot paint life. You say, That eye wants fire, that head wants dignity, the whole frame wants the accent which is vital. Give it! The artist may partially succeed, but one lifting of an infant's hand throws all the artist's skill away like a vain thing. One flash of the eye of anger, one gleam of the eye of love, one touch of friendship,—who can paint these, represent these? We can only speak of them, and remember them, and hide them in our grateful hearts: but to speak of them is almost to destroy them; they love the temple of silence, they delight in the sanctuary of holy things. Who will live unto the Lord's praise? who will say, I will now sing unto the Lord as long as I live: God helping me, no longer shall my life be mean, and empty, and poor, vicious, sophistical, self-seeking; hence on by God's help as revealed in Christ's Cross I will praise the Lord? Then we shall come to see what life can really rise to, and embody, and realise. No man yet knows what is in him: you have more intellect than you have yet supposed; you have greater capacity than you have yet measured; you only need the right inspiration, and out of you there will come sparks cf fire, and as it were in the very hem of your garment there will be healing, and all life will be a blessing to all other life.
Do not believe that you have attained your majority, that you are now going down the hill, that you have left life to others. In Christ Jesus we shall live to the very last. The last of your days shall be amongst the brightest jewels of your time. He who lives in Christ never tires; he is fed with energy divine, he is sustained from on high; he has indeed a long after-glow. And there are those who have not scrupled to say that, beauty for beauty, the prize must be given to eventide.
"From 720, when Isaiah 11 may have been published, to 705—or, by rough reckoning, from the fortieth to the fifty-fifth year of Isaiah's life—we cannot be sure that we have more than one prophecy from him; but two narratives have found a place in his book which relate events that must have taken place between 712 and 705. These narratives are Isaiah 20 : How Isaiah Walked Stripped and Barefoot for a Sign against Egypt, and Isaiah 38 and Isaiah 39 : The Sickness of Hezekiah, with the Hymn he wrote, and his Behaviour before the Envoys from Babylon. The single prophecy belonging to this period is Isaiah 21:1-10, Oracle of the Wilderness of the Sea, which announces the fall of Babylon."
—Rev. G. A, Smith, M.A.