Isaiah (Part 41): Hezekiah’s Illness and Recovery (Ch 38-39)
In chapter 38 we read that Hezekiah became ill. This was probably in his 14th year just as the Assyrian conflict is beginning. Isaiah came to him and told him to put his affairs in order because he would die from the illness. Hezekiah, in tears, prayed to God recounting his faithful and wholehearted actions in attempting to lead Judah as a nation belonging to God. Before Isaiah had even left the courtyard of the palace, God told Isaiah to return to Hezekiah with the news that God heard his prayer and would grant him another 15 years of life and that God would deliver him and Jerusalem from Assyria.
This story is interesting because it reveals more than a cursory read might suggest. Hezekiah’s tears no doubt occur partly because of the shock and fear in being told that he would die. But it cannot be only fear and self-preservation that are his concern. Certainly he wouldn’t be telling God, “Look how faithful I’ve been! You owe me!” Nor does it seem possible that God grants Hezekiah additional years to honor Hezekiah’s fear and selfishness. And why in his reply does God bring up David, having Isaiah say, as part of the message, that “the Lord God of your ancestor David says…”?
These are all hints that Hezekiah’s tears meant more than mere fear and selfishness. Hezekiah appears to be in tears partly for his concern for Judah. This illness occurs just as the threat of Assyria begins. Hezekiah mentions his faithfulness to God not to bargain good behavior for more life, but rather to express the care for the nation that Hezekiah had begun to draw Judah back to God. He was worried that with his death at such a precarious time, Judah could stumble back to the ways of his father, Ahaz, in ignoring God and looking for security elsewhere. Verse 6 probably gives us the clearest indication of this idea. If Hezekiah were thinking only of himself, why would God, in answering his prayer, mention safety from Assyria as part of the answer? Granting safety from Assyria as part of God’s answer indicates that safety from Assyria was part of Hezekiah’s concern and request. Furthermore, by mentioning David, God is letting Hezekiah know that just as David was concerned for his people and God supported him, so would God support Hezekiah as he continued to care for his people.
The next couple of verses (7-8) mention the sign of the shadow moving backwards on the steps as assurance that God was answering Hezekiah. We know that Jesus answered the Pharisees’ request for a sign by saying, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign” (Matthew 12:39). But Hezekiah’s request is different in attitude and faith. The Pharisees were not expecting a sign, but were intent on discrediting Jesus. Furthermore, the insolence of no trust until it is proved miraculously is the attitude that Jesus opposes with his words. Hezekiah had proved himself faithful to God. The sign was a point of assurance—something tangible to mark the promise of God. In Mark 9 we read of the man whose son was possessed asking Jesus to help if he could. Jesus takes exception to the “if,” indicating a lack of faith on the man’s part. But the man cries out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” This is classic interaction between God and man that goes on throughout the Bible, and upon which the idea of faith electionism is based. God reveals, man responds, and God withdraws if the response is unbelief or God provides further revelation and blessing if the response is in faith.
Most of the rest of the chapter provides a psalm written by Hezekiah about his illness and recovery. Although you would think it would be a tribute to God filled with thanksgiving, Hezekiah seems to dwell predominantly on his feelings and condition while ill. The poem has the meter and content of a lament rather than a psalm of praise or thanksgiving. But there is purpose in that. The purpose is a summation of everything we had seen so far concerning Judah’s struggles. Hezekiah typifies Israel. He becomes sick picturing Israel’s turn from trust in God. Hezekiah is told he would die, and Israel would be judged through attack by Assyria. Hezekiah prays to God, demonstrating faithfulness, and Israel repents as a nation to trust God. God then relents and gives Hezekiah life, and God pulls back the judgment by promising rescue from Assyria. Since Israel pictures the world at large, Hezekiah’s story is also a picture of the world in its fall into sin and rescue by God when responding to him in faith. Note the ideas of the poem that find reversal through the coming Messiah. In verse 11 we see hopeless condition because of the penalty of death. But that will be overcome by the Messiah. In verse 12 we see loss of land, which is usually symbolic of security and rest. This too is overcome by the Messiah. Verse 13 shows danger and no one that provides care. Again, the situation is reversed by the Messiah. And verses 15 through 20 concentrate on new life—the rescue by the Messiah.
This chapter, then, is appropriate toward the end of this first section of Isaiah prior to turning to the Messiah in the second part of the book.
Verses 21-22 of chapter 38 provide some explanatory notes, but they seem out of place. It is possible that they found their way into the text due to some scribe’s explanatory notation relating the account more closely to the 2 Kings 20 description.
Chapter 39 begins just after Hezekiah has recovered and therefore also still years prior to the events of chapters 36-37. Messengers from Merodach-Baladan in Babylon come to present a gift and allied support to Hezekiah following his sickness. Hezekiah, overcome with pride, shows them Judah’s treasuries in an effort to impress. But Isaiah comes in after the messengers have left to tell Hezekiah that that was the wrong thing to do. Isaiah tells him that God would have Babylon take the nation into captivity, but this would happen some time after Hezekiah’s reign. The chapter, and thus the “Old Testament” portion of the book, end with Hezekiah musing that Isaiah’s word from God was good since there would be peace and security during his lifetime. As with Hezekiah’s tears, this musing seems self-centered. However, I think that there is some reason to believe that Hezekiah is not as self-absorbed as may first be thought. God again is responding to Hezekiah by granting him peace—hardly what God normally does for people who think only of themselves. The previous incident of Hezekiah’s illness taught Hezekiah something about God’s response. God may determine to act one way (especially in judgment), but then relent based on the prayers of faithful servants/children. Hezekiah could be thinking that just as he followed God in faith so that the judgment of Assyria was turned, so could the next king or kings petition God in faith and possibly find relief from the judgment of Babylon. In the broader scope, this is exactly what the Messiah brings for his people—relief/rescue from the judgment of death through the heart turned in faith.
Before beginning the “New Testament” portion of Isaiah that concentrates on the Righteous Servant, it may be a good idea to discuss the atonement—the purpose and achievement of the Messiah’s ministry—so that in studying Isaiah’s prophecies, we can be sure to relate them appropriately.
The more we know about the atonement, the more we know of our God because the atonement shows us much about our God. The fundamental attributes of God are truth, love, and beauty. We usually say that as truth, goodness, and beauty, but goodness is really a subset of love. Truth is what we see as God’s possession. Beauty is how he appears. Love is how he expresses himself. All those other qualities of God—qualities like, holiness, mercy, faithfulness, and justice—derive from the fundamental three.
In the New Testament, it is John who speaks of God in these fundamental qualities of truth, love, and beauty.
TRUTH: John 3:33 – The one who has accepted His testimony has affirmed that God is true.
LOVE: 1 John 4:16 – And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.
BEAUTY: 1 John 1:5 – Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him.
Note that light is used in the Bible to signify several ideas. Actually, light is symbolic of all three: truth, goodness, and beauty.
Truth: Ps 43:3 “Send Your light and Your truth; let them lead me. Let them bring me to Your holy mountain.”
Goodness: Ps 4:6 (NIV) “Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’ Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.”
Beauty: Ps 104:1b-2a “You are clothed with majesty and splendor. He wraps Himself in light as if it were a robe.” Ps 50:2 (NIV) “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.”
I imagine that as John wrote that God is Light, he was thinking of his experience at the Mount of Transfiguration as he saw Jesus in the beauty of the brilliantly shining whiteness.
And so we have God expressed in the NT as truth, love, and beauty. The reason I bring this up is that our understanding of the atonement must not only be consistent with these attributes but must develop from them as a foundation.