Praying for Ourselves

| Isaiah 38:1-20 | October 28, 2018

Week of November 4, 2018

The Point:  Surrendering to God leads to greater things.

Hezekiah’s Recovery:  Isaiah 38:1-20.

[1] In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” [2] Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, [3] and said, “Please, O LORD, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. [4] Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: [5] “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. [6] I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city. [7] “This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he has promised: [8] Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.” So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. [9] A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness: [10] I said, In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. [11] I said, I shall not see the LORD, the LORD in the land of the living; I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world. [12] My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom; from day to night you bring me to an end; [13] I calmed myself until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones; from day to night you bring me to an end. [14] Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety! [15] What shall I say? For he has spoken to me, and he himself has done it. I walk slowly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. [16] O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these is the life of my spirit. Oh restore me to health and make me live! [17] Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. [18] For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. [19] The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness. [20] The LORD will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD.   [ESV]

“Hezekiah’s illness [38:1-8].  [1]  In those days is an indefinite expression that does not absolutely determine the order of events, but certainly sets Hezekiah’s illness in the context of Sennacherib’s invasion. Though the nature of Hezekiah’s illness is not stated (verse 21 mentions a boil), it was serious and life-threatening. We are not told how long this condition had lasted prior to the prophet’s arrival, but Isaiah confirmed that the king’s end was near and that he should set your house in order. However, Hezekiah did not die, and this raises questions as to how Isaiah could in the name of Yahweh emphatically announce, you shall die, you shall not recover. Biblical prophecies of doom were conditional in character and given with a view to inducing a change in the attitude of those to whom they were delivered, whether nations or individuals. What was stated was the inevitable outcome if nothing else altered, but there was extended, often implicitly, the prospect of a change in Yahweh’s disposition if there was an appropriate response on the part of those addressed. [2-3]  The announcement of his impending death led Hezekiah to prayer. He did not want to die: an early death seemed to be a token of divine wrath, rather than the favor indicated by a long life. His personal concerns would have been heightened by the needs of the kingdom. His heir, Manasseh, was still young at this point and would have been unable to provide the leadership needed to resist the imminent Assyrian attack. The significance of turned his face to the wall is uncertain. Possibly it indicated a desire to be alone with his thoughts, uninterrupted by his courtiers or the prophet. With intense emotion, Hezekiah implored Yahweh to consider his situation and remember how he had conducted himself in faithfulness, true to what was required of the covenant king. This was the commitment that Isaiah had commended earlier [7:9; 30:15]. Details of Hezekiah’s reforms are not included in Isaiah, but may be found in 2 Kings 18:1-8 and more extensively in 2 Chronicles 29-31. With a whole heart points to his single-minded devotion to Yahweh and genuine desire to advance his cause by doing what is good in your sight. Hezekiah does not claim to be perfect, but that he had been sincerely motivated. He is not resorting to bargaining with Yahweh on the basis of his good works, and indeed he does not ask for anything. The prayer is the groan of a devastated individual expressing his grief that his hopes to achieve much for Yahweh are to be brought to a premature end. [4-6]  Hezekiah’s prayer received a speedy response. After Isaiah had delivered his message and left the king, he had not crossed the middle courtyard of the palace before Yahweh spoke to him [2 Kings. 20:4], and he returned to deliver to the king this reversal of his previous message. Isaiah does not quibble, as Jonah did [Jonah 4:2-3], that the message he had just announced was now altered. We may also note that this incident shows that a special environment was not needed for a prophet to receive divine revelation. Yahweh’s word came to Isaiah as he walked across a busy courtyard. The prophetic announcement is to be delivered in the name of the God of David your father, reminding Hezekiah of the nature of his occupancy of the throne as heir of the Davidic dynasty and therefore of the promises of the Davidic covenant. Although the reference to your tears accepts that Hezekiah had prayed with genuine emotion and fervor, that in itself was not the basis for what would happen next. Behold, I will add focuses attention on Yahweh’s initiative and intervention, as do the following first-person verbs. Not only does the one who is the Lord of life sovereignly add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life, He also gives the Davidic monarch the promise of security for himself and his capital during that period. The concerns of the king had extended to the destiny of the nation put in his charge. Though both would come perilously close to death, they would be delivered by divine intervention. Yahweh undertakes to defend this city – that is, to fence it about for its protection from the enemy. This commitment bears every mark of having been given before the destruction of the Assyrian army. It may be that mention of the city, rather than the land, points to a time after the invasion had begun, but it may just reflect the significance of the capital and sacred city even before the invasion took place. [7]  The narrative of 2 Kings 20:7-8 inserts further information at this point which shows this was not a continuous speech by the prophet, and that Hezekiah himself requested a sign. Unlike his father Ahaz, who refused a sign because he was determined to follow his own plans [7:12], Hezekiah wanted his faith to be increased, and so asked for a sign. Yahweh gave him a measure of choice in the matter, and he selected that the shadow move in the more difficult direction, backwards rather than forwards, perhaps also considering the move as symbolic of the delay that would occur before his death, rather than seemingly hastening the passing of time [2 Kings 20:9-11]. [8]  Yahweh announces that He will display His power by bringing back the shadow of the sun. What occurred, then, when the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined? Though a miracle was involved, the means by which it was effected is not stated. What we can be certain of is that what took place lay outside the ordinary providential ordering of this world and was directly effected by God to provide irrefutable attestation of His power to accomplish the pledges He had connected with the sign – namely, the recovery and extended life of Hezekiah, the protection of Jerusalem and, more generally, the fulfilment of all the promises of the covenant made with David.

Hezekiah’s Psalm [38:9-20].  [9-10]  This is a song of thanksgiving composed after Yahweh’s positive intervention in Hezekiah’s life, in which he recalls his experience while ill [38:10-14] and then offers praise for divine healing [38:15-20]. I said is equally used for inward speech, and so is equivalent here to ‘I thought’. It is evident that during his illness Hezekiah’s thoughts had been very gloomy indeed, because he had concluded that he would inevitably die while in the middle of my days. Hezekiah was twenty-five years old when he began his sole reign in 715, and so by 701 he would have been about thirty-nine years old, which he is comparing with an expected lifespan of seventy or eighty years. He likens his premature death to going through the gates of Sheol, which is compared to a city or a prison in which he will be kept. It is a one-way journey to the grave. I am consigned uses a form of the verb which usually relates to a superior’s action with respect to an inferior, and seems to interpret what is happening as divine inspection of him with consequent judgment, taking away the balance of the years he could reasonably have expected to live. However, apart from this hint it is noteworthy that Hezekiah does not associate his illness with sin. [11]  By repeating I said, Hezekiah clearly indicates that he is continuing to describe his former experience in which he anticipated he was soon to lose the privilege of seeing the Lord in the land of the living. This does not point to an experience of seeing Yahweh as He essentially is, but to participation in the worship of the temple, which Yahweh was pleased to grace with His presence and where His worshippers could enjoy a fuller disclosure of His character and purpose. Hezekiah does not focus on what lies beyond death, but on what he knows he will leave behind. He had enjoyed fellowship with Yahweh in the worship of the sanctuary, and the immediate prospect was that he was going to lose this. In the second part of the verse Hezekiah anticipates being additionally deprived of fellowship and interaction with mankind in this world: I shall look on man no more[12]  Hezekiah describes the dire nature of the change he is to undergo by using two sets of imagery. In the first he compares his life to a shepherd’s tent which is taken down forcibly from around him by a storm or an enemy, leaving him exposed. While his dwelling remained, it had given an impression of permanence, but now Hezekiah finds that it can be easily removed, and his bodily existence is exposed as vulnerable and fleeting. The second set of imagery derives from weaving. He first refers to himself as having to roll up his life in the same way as a weaver does with cloth taken from a loom. Then he add, he cuts me off from the loom. It is Yahweh who will irreversibly sever the threads that attach me to this life, when He has decided that the cloth of my life is large enough. The final line is direct address to Yahweh. From day to night suggests within the space of one day – that is, the weaver will suddenly finish his task and bring me to an end. [13]  Hezekiah portrays himself as composing himself for a night’s sleep, but there was no remission from his suffering, which he attributes directly to divine aggression: like a lion he breaks all my bones. His pain was such that it felt as if every bone in his body was being broken. [14]  Hezekiah resorts to further comparisons to bring out how pathetic his condition was. He likens his speech to the chattering of birds. The picture is of one who is speaking quietly through exhaustion, but who none the less continues to speak. Moan brings out the plaintive note of his repeated cries. However, despite his acknowledgement that his suffering came from Yahweh, Hezekiah would not desist from looking upward to the Lord, the sovereign ruler of heaven and earth. Because Hezekiah’s condition has not arisen without the Lord’s knowledge and permission, He is the only one who has the power to provide an effective remedy for it. So the king has unremittingly looked to Him for assistance, to such an extent that his eyes are weary. He sums up his need in the words, I am oppressed; he sets out his prayer in be my pledge of safety. The latter is a legal metaphor for one who enters into a bond to answer for another should the latter default. Hezekiah knows he is unable to provide for himself, and so he pleads with Yahweh to answer for him and pay the debt he cannot clear by himself. [15]  Hezekiah moves on from describing his past distress to setting out his response to Yahweh’s intervention in his life. The dramatic suddenness of the transition in his circumstances is marked by the abrupt beginning of the verse. What shall I say conveys Hezekiah’s amazement at what has happened. He is still having to adjust to the change that has taken place and his thoughts have not yet caught up with events. Perhaps they never will, for what words would be adequate to express his gratitude? Yet there is this testimony that he can unhesitatingly give: Yahweh has spoken to me, through the word brought by Isaiah in answer to his prayers [38:4-6], and he himself has done it, effecting the cure for Hezekiah’s sickness. The word of hope did not come on its own; it was accompanied by powerful action. Consequently Hezekiah sets out his resolve as to how he will live for the rest of his life. I walk slowly employs a verb found also in Psalm 42:4 of leading in a sacred procession. It indicates solemn, deliberate movement that is regulated in some way. The king vows to be circumspect in his conduct throughout all my years that have been so graciously added to his lifespan. The bitterness of my soul refers back to Hezekiah’s humbling experience of his own mortality. It has been for his good because the memory of what had happened to him will be constantly before him, and so he will not lose sight of his dependence on Yahweh. [16]  Hezekiah again addresses the Lord and sums up the implications for mankind in general, as well as for himself, of the Lord’s dealings with him. By these things seems to refer to the way in which God has acted in Hezekiah’s life. The last line of the verse is then an explanatory addition to clarify the previous, somewhat obscure references. What God has done is to restore me to health, and in that way He will make me live. But this intervention impacts on others beside Hezekiah. Men live – that is, mankind in general – if they follow Hezekiah’s example in pleading their case before Yahweh, no matter how debilitating and dire their condition. In all these refers to every aspect of the divine dealings with Hezekiah. It all flowed together to sustain the life of my spirit – a phrase which refers not merely to his continued existence, but to life sustained and directed by inner vitality and energy. Hezekiah is setting out the full extent of Yahweh’s reinvigorating intervention. [17]  So Hezekiah is now able to look back on his experience of great bitterness with a new depth of understanding. It had been for my welfare, the total well-being and fulfilment of an individual, that Yahweh had intervened in his life in this way and led him along the path of suffering. Despite the king’s reaction to Yahweh’s chastening hand on him, Yahweh himself had continued to show His love towards Hezekiah. God’s love here denotes the maintenance of the bond that existed between Yahweh and the king with a determination that expressed itself in action to keep Hezekiah from the pit of destruction, viewing the grave as if it were a trap dug in the ground, entry into which inevitably led to corruption into nothingness. This deliverance was possible only because God had decisively dealt with the fundamental problem of Hezekiah’s sins. By an act of divine forgiveness and obliteration, Yahweh had cast all my sins behind your back, unseen and not to be further considered. Having received not death, the wages of sin, but an extension of his life, Hezekiah knew that this evidence of divine favor brought with it far more extensive blessing. [18]  With for Hezekiah traces Yahweh’s loving deliverance of him from death as having occurred because the purpose of life was to praise God with thanksgiving and Hezekiah could not envisage that as occurring in the grave. The pit refers to the grave, and those who have gone down into it are the dead, who were not considered capable of looking confidently for the saving results of divine faithfulness to be realized in their lives. [19]  Over against the silence and gloom of the grave Hezekiah asserts by means of an emphatic duplication that it is the one who continues to enjoy life who has the privilege and duty of rendering praise to Yahweh with thanksgiving. This was how Hezekiah himself was acting, as one who had personally benefited from divine mercy and was now voicing his grateful praise in the presence of the covenant community. He sees the responsibility as extending from father to children, down through the generations as they take steps to ensure that knowledge of divine faithfulness is perpetuated. [20]  In a resounding conclusion to his psalm Hezekiah again states the fact that occasioned its composition: The Lord will save me. In the previous verse he had indicated that he personally was praising Yahweh for this, and he also implies that he was taking steps to involve his children in this act of worship. But Hezekiah had restored the musical element of temple worship [2 Chr. 29:27-30], and so he exhorts the whole congregation to extol Yahweh’s goodness to their king as they play my music on stringed instruments, such as the harp and lyre. Furthermore, Hezekiah had been promised that after three days he would go up to the temple [2 Kings 20:5], and so he envisages a sacred procession up to the house of the Lord, not just on that first return there, but all the days of our lives, an expression which reflects the special extension to his own life which he will dedicate to the service of Yahweh.”  [Mackay, pp. 799-819].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. Analyze Hezekiah’s prayer in 38:3, 10-14 (Verses 10-14 is a lament that gives further details of Hezekiah’s prayer). For what did he pray? What was his attitude towards God; towards his circumstances? How did God answer Hezekiah’s prayer? What promises did God give the king? (Note the first person verbs). Why does God answer Hezekiah’s prayer? (see also 2 Kings 20:6).
  2. How does Hezekiah respond to God answering his prayer [38:15-20]? What is his attitude towards God in these verses? What does Hezekiah mean by saying: I will walk slowly all my years [15]? How can you walk slowly before God? Note how Hezekiah pledges to make known God’s faithfulness to his children. Why is this important for you to do with your children? Hezekiah ends his response to God in verse 20 with a pledge to praise and worship God. Shouldn’t this be our response to God for His answering our prayers?

References:

Isaiah, vol. 1, John Mackay, Evangelical Press.

The Prophecy of Isaiah, J. Alec Motyer, Inter Varsity Press.

The Book of Isaiah, vol. 2, Edward Young, Eerdmans.