Isaiah 38 – King Hezekiah’s Life is Spared
A. The mercy of God to Hezekiah.
1. (1) Isaiah’s announcement to Hezekiah.
In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’”
a. In those days: This happened at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, because Jerusalem had not been delivered from the Assyrian threat yet (Isaiah 38:6). The events of this chapter are also recorded in 2 Kings 20:1-11.
i. “Interpreters agree that the events described in chapters 38 and 39 preceded the invasion of 701 B.C.…. Many date these events in 703 B.C., but the evidence more strongly suggests a date of about 712 B.C.” (Wolf)
b. Was sick and near death: We are not told how Hezekiah became sick. It may have been through something obvious to all, or it may have been through something known only to God. However Hezekiah became sick, it was certainly permitted by the LORD.
c. Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live: God was remarkably kind to Hezekiah, telling him that his death was near. Not all people are given the time to set their house in order.
i. We know from comparing 2 Kings 18:2 with 2 Kings 20:6, that Hezekiah was 39 years old when he learned he would soon die.
2. (2-3) Hezekiah’s prayer.
Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the LORD, and said, “Remember now, O LORD, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
a. Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall: This shows how earnest Hezekiah was in his prayer. He directed his prayer in privacy to God, and not to any man.
b. Remember now, O LORD: To our ears, Hezekiah’s prayer might almost sound ungodly. In it, his focus is on self-justification and his own merits. It is pretty much as if Hezekiah prayed, “LORD, I’ve been such a good boy and You aren’t being fair to me. Remember what a good boy I’ve been and rescue me.”
i. But under the Old Covenant, this was a valid principle on which to approach God. Passages like Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 show that under the Old Covenant, blessing and cursing were sent by God on the basis of obedience or disobedience. On that principle, David could write in Psalm 15: LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart. (Psalm 15:1-2)
ii. But under the New Covenant, we are blessed on the principle of faith in Jesus (Galatians 3:13-14). Hezekiah’s principle of prayer isn’t fitting for a Christian today. We pray in the name of Jesus (John 16:23-24), not in the name of who we are or what we have done.
iii. “We come across similar pleas again and again in the prayers of God’s children of old. The Psalms abound with them. But we do not find them in the New Testament. The Church bases its pleas on Christ’s righteousness.” (Bultema)
c. And Hezekiah wept bitterly: Why was Hezekiah so undone at the prospect of death? Many Christians today would say, “Take me home, LORD!” But Hezekiah lived under the Old Covenant, and at that time there was not a confident assurance of the glory in the life beyond. Instead, Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). Also, under the Old Covenant Hezekiah would have regarded this as evidence that God was very displeased with him.
3. (4-5) Isaiah brings God’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer.
And the word of the LORD came to Isaiah, saying, “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will add to your days fifteen years.
a. I will add to your days fifteen years: In response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God granted Hezekiah fifteen years more.
i. Because Hezekiah recovered, was God’s word (You shall die and not live, Isaiah 38:1) proved false? No; first, Hezekiah did in fact die, just not as soon as God first announced. Second, when God announces judgment it is almost always an invitation to repent and to receive mercy.
b. I have heard your prayer: Hezekiah’s prayer was important. By all indications, if Hezekiah had not made his passionate prayer, then his life would not have been extended. Prayer matters.
i. In fact, God gave two gifts to Hezekiah. First, He gave the gift of an extended life. Second, He gave the gift of knowing he only had fifteen years left. If he were wise, this would still give King Hezekiah the motivation to walk right with God and to set his house in order.
4. (6) The promise of deliverance from the Assyrian threat.
I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city.”’
a. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria: This promise is in accord with the LORD’s previous prophecies of deliverance, and dates this chapter as being before God destroyed the Assyrian army (Isaiah 37:36-37).
b. I will deliver you…and I will defend this city: The connection of the two promises indicates that one would confirm the other. When Hezekiah recovered his health, he could know that God would also deliver him from the Assyrians.
5. (7-8) A sign to confirm the promise.
And this is the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing which He has spoken: Behold, I will bring the shadow on the sundial, which has gone down with the sun on the sundial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward.” So the sun returned ten degrees on the dial by which it had gone down.
a. This is the sign…that the LORD will do this thing which He has spoken: God showed even more mercy to Hezekiah. God was under no obligation to give this sign. In fact, God would have been justified in saying, “Hey Hezekiah, I said it and you believe it. How dare you not take My word for true?” But in real love, God gave Hezekiah more than he needed or deserved.
i. God shows the same mercy to us. It should be enough for God to simply say to us, “I love you.” But God did so much to demonstrate His love to us (John 3:16, Romans 5:8).
b. Behold, I will bring the shadow of the sundial…ten degrees backward: God promised to do something completely miraculous for the confirming sign. And it happened just as God promised: So the sun returned ten degrees on the dial by which it had gone down.
i. This was a wonderfully appropriate sign for Hezekiah. By having the shadow of the sundial move backward, it gave more time in a day – just as God gave Hezekiah more time.
ii. How was this miracle accomplished? We don’t know. God could have simply “moved the sun back.” Or, He may have provided the miraculous appearance of time moving back on the sundial of Ahaz. It doesn’t really matter how God did it; He has miraculous resources and ways we know nothing about.
B. King Hezekiah’s statement regarding his healing.
1. (9-14) Hezekiah’s lament.
This is the writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness:
“In the prime of my life
I shall go to the gates of Sheol;
I am deprived of the remainder of my years.”
“I shall not see YAH,
The LORD in the land of the living;
I shall observe man no more among the inhabitants of the world.
My life span is gone,
Taken from me like a shepherd’s tent;
I have cut off my life like a weaver.
He cuts me off from the loom;
From day until night You make an end of me.
I have considered until morning—
Like a lion,
So He breaks all my bones;
From day until night You make an end of me.
Like a crane or a swallow, so I chattered;
I mourned like a dove;
My eyes fail from looking upward.
O LORD, I am oppressed;
Undertake for me!
a. In the prime of my life I shall go to the gates of Sheol: The Hebrew word Sheol refers to “the grave” or “the place of the dead.” Here, Hezekiah laments the news of his impending death.
b. I shall not see YAH, the LORD in the land of the living: Hezekiah’s pain at his approaching death is increased as he believes that in the grave, he will no longer see the LORD.
i. Again, Hezekiah’s thinking is based in the cloudy understanding of the world beyond, before life and immortality were brought to life through the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 1:10). Though there are occasional glimpses of hope into the world beyond (such as in Job 19:25-27), for the most part there is no clear understanding of the nature of life after death (Psalm 6:5, Psalm 88:3-5, 11).
ii. This explains why Hezekiah does not welcome death as a certain pathway to the presence of the LORD. For these Old Testament saints like Hezekiah and David, the grave (Sheol) was an uncertain place. They knew the LORD was there (Psalm 139:8), but they didn’t know much more than that. For these Old Testament saints, going to the world beyond was exchanging this world’s certainty for the uncertainty of the world beyond.
c. O LORD, I am oppressed: Since Hezekiah lived before the finished work of Jesus, he lived under the bondage of the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). How different for the believer in Jesus Christ, for whom death has no victory or sting (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).
i. “Hezekiah has been compared with Paul who desired to depart and be with Christ, but this comparison is unfair, for Hezekiah still lived under the shadow of the Old Dispensation. Israel knew of an immortal life but did not quite have the glorious hope the Church now has.” (Bultema)
d. Like a crane or a swallow, so I chattered; I mourned like a dove: “The varied cries of Palestine’s birds express the varied nature of Hezekiah’s many cries to God, now quiet, now shrill, now mournful.” (Grogan)
2. We can have a clearer understanding of the world beyond than King Hezekiah did.
a. The Bible uses several different words in the Old and New Testaments to describe the world beyond, and where people go when they die.
Sheol is a Hebrew word with the idea of the “place of the dead.” It has no direct reference to either torment or eternal happiness. The idea of Sheol is often accurately expressed as “the grave.”
Hades is a Greek word used to describe the “world beyond.” In the Bible, it has generally the same idea as Sheol.
Revelation 9:1 speaks of the bottomless pit; this place called the abyssos is a prison for certain demons (Luke 8:31; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). Or more generally, it is considered part of the realm of the dead (Romans 10:7 uses it in the sense of Hades).
Gehenna is a Greek word borrowed from the Hebrew language. In Mark 9:43-44, Jesus speaks of hell (gehenna). Hell is a Greek translation of the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom,” a place outside Jerusalem’s walls desecrated by Molech worship and human sacrifice (2 Chronicles 28:1-3; Jeremiah 32:35). It was also a garbage dump where rubbish and refuse were burned. The smoldering fires and festering worms of the Valley of Hinnom made it a graphic and effective picture of the fate of the damned. This place is also called the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:13-15, prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
b. The place known as Sheol and Hades is not what we normally think of as “Hell.” It was, before the finished work of Jesus, the place where the dead awaited judgment or final justification (as illustrated by Jesus in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31). Jesus was in Hades after His death on the cross, but did not (and could not) remain there (Acts 2:25-32). It seems that Jesus preached in Hades (1 Peter 3:18-19) and there is a sense in which Jesus set the captives in Hades free (Ephesians 4:8-9 and Isaiah 61:1). Jesus made no atonement in Hades; the price was already paid on the cross (John 19:30) when Jesus suffered in His physical body (Colossians 1:19-22). Jesus went to Hades as a victor not as a victim. Jesus’ work and preaching offered salvation for the believing dead who in faith waited in Hades (Hebrews 11:39-40), and His work sealed the condemnation of the wicked and unbelieving. Since Jesus’ work on the cross is finished, there is no “waiting” for believers who die, who go straight to heaven (2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Philippians 1:21-23). In that sense, Jesus “shut down” the part of Hades known as “Abraham’s Bosom”; but the portion of Hades reserved for torment is occupied until the final judgment, when those who are there will be sent to what we normally think of as “Hell.” Gehenna is what we normally think of as “Hell,” the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10-15, and 21:6-8). Actually, Gehenna or hell has many names or titles in the Bible, including lake of fire (Revelation 19:20), everlasting fire (Matthew 25:41), everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), and outer darkness (Matthew 8:12).
c. The Old Testament has little clear revelation about the afterlife; confident statements like Job 19:25-26 are countered by unsure passages like Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 and Psalm 6:4-5. However, the New Testament gives much more specific revelation regarding the afterlife; these are things that have now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:10) Significantly, most people who teach wrong doctrines about the afterlife (such as “soul sleep” or annihilationism) base their arguments on these “unsure” passages from the Old Testament, instead of the much clearer passages in the New Testament. In doing this, they reject the clear principle of 2 Timothy 1:10.
3. (15-20) Hezekiah praises God for sparing his life.
“What shall I say?
He has both spoken to me,
And He Himself has done it.
I shall walk carefully all my years
In the bitterness of my soul.
O LORD, by these things men live;
And in all these thingsis the life of my spirit;
So You will restore me and make me live.
Indeed it was for my own peace
That I had great bitterness;
But You have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.
For Sheol cannot thank You,
Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth.
The living, the living man, he shall praise You,
As I do this day;
The father shall make known Your truth to the children.
“The LORD was ready to save me;
Therefore we will sing my songs with stringed instruments
All the days of our life, in the house of the LORD.”
a. What shall I say? He has both spoken to me, and He Himself has done it: When God answered his prayer, all Hezekiah could do was praise God. He knew that it was all the LORD’s work, both in word (spoken to me) and deed (done it). So, Hezekiah was speechless (What shall I say?).
b. I shall walk carefully all my years: This is a good promise Hezekiah makes, and one often on the lips of the person God has spared. But in the end, it was only a good promise if Hezekiah made it good.
i. What did Hezekiah do with these added 15 years? One thing he did was father a son who would succeed him on the throne of Judah. Of the next king of Judah, Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, it is written that he was 12 years old when he became king (2 Kings 21:1). This means he must have been born in the last 15 years of Hezekiah’s life. Sadly, fathering Manasseh was not a worthy achievement. It was written of him, And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel (2 Kings 21:2). In fact, God specifically targeted Judah for judgment because of the terrible sins of Manasseh (2 Kings 21:10-15).
ii. In this, we may see that the LORD had a better plan than Hezekiah did in calling him home at the earlier time. God knew that if Hezekiah lived, he would give birth to this wicked successor. Sometimes it is best to simply leave our lot with the LORD, and leave what even seems to be clearly good up to His wisdom.
c. It was for my own peace that I had great bitterness: Hezekiah is to be admired for his accurate self-knowledge, and his honesty. He admits that it was not for God’s glory or honor, or even for the glory or honor of his kingdom that he was troubled over his impending death and that he wanted his life spared. It was for his own peace.
d. For Sheol cannot thank You, death cannot praise You; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth. The living, the living man, he shall praise You, as I do this day: Again, this passage reflects the uncertain understanding of the “world beyond” before the finished work of Jesus Christ. Hezekiah knew he could praise God while he walked this earth, but he wasn’t so sure about the world beyond.
e. Therefore we will sing my songs with stringed instruments all the days of our life, in the house of the LORD: Hezekiah shows the logical response to God’s great deliverance – praise.
4. (21-22) How the LORD healed Hezekiah.
Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a lump of figs, and apply it as a poultice on the boil, and he shall recover.” And Hezekiah had said, “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the LORD?”
a. Let them take a lump of figs, and apply it as a poultice on the boil, and he shall recover: Apparently, God used this medical treatment – at the very least, He used it as a sign – to bring Hezekiah’s healing. God can, and often does, bring healing through medical treatments, and apart from an unusual direction from God, medical treatment should never be rejected in the name of “faith.”
i. “The patient must pray, but withal make use of means; trust God, but not tempt him.” (Trapp)
b. What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the LORD? Hezekiah wanted a sign, but why a sign that would allow him to go up to the house of the LORD? Because he could not and would not go up to the house of the LORD until he was healed, so the two were connected.
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – email@example.com