Isaiah Chapter 38


Hezekiah's Sickness and Recovery

Although the chapter begins with the words, "In those days," the event of which it tells did not occur in chronological sequence to the deliverance of Jerusalem by the destruction of the Assyrian army, for that is here promised and must therefore have been still in the future.

Hezekiah reigned twenty-nine years (2 Kings 18:2), and it was fifteen years prior to his decease that he was dangerously ill, as here told. That would bring the sickness back to the fourteenth year of his reign: the very year in which he was in such deep distress from the Assyrian, as chap. 36:1 has already told us. We can well believe that the poor king must have uttered the proverbial sigh that few of the children of men have not breathed: "Misfortunes never come singly." In this light, the sickness, with the tender grace of God in the recovery, must have strengthened the faith of the king for the trial with the Assyrian that Jehovah foresaw was coming on himthat is ever His way with His people. He knows what awaits us and strengthens us for it, and nothing so strengthens for trial as trial gone through with Him.

This second Act, then, opens with a sick room, in which the king lies prostrated by a malignant ulcer. To him there comes the prophet of the book, Isaiah, who, as we are reminded, was the son of Amoz,1 and tells him to put his house in order, to make his last will and testament, for he is about to die.

This sentence of death was a terrible message for the poor king, who turned his face to the wall (what a human touch is that!) that he might, as far as possible, shut out all the distracting objects about him, and be alone with Jehovah. Then he pleads for his life. He does not despair. He may have argued: Would God have thus warned me had there not been a possibility, indeed a purpose of mercy, and that by His servant, whose very name speaks of "salvation"? It is at least His blessed way. Again and again He would stir us up to greater exercise by what would seem on the surface to make all exercise unavailing. "Sleep on now and take your rest" (Matt. 26:45)did the Lord really mean that they were then and there to sleep? Surely not, as the very next words show. "Let Me alone that I may destroy them" (Deut. 9:14); was that God's real desire? Far from it. "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed" (Jonah 3:4). Was it? "He that is filthy, let him be filthy still" (Rev. 22:11). Is that His desire for any? No, no; they that have any knowledge of God will draw different conclusions as did the stricken king, as did Jacob and Moses before him, as may we. It often needs, not a mere acquaintance with words, but a true knowledge of God to arrive at what He means by the words.

With his face to the wall, we hear the king speak, and he begins with a word of lowly supplication, "O Jehovah, I beseech Thee." You see it was a very dreadful thing for a Jewish king to die at thirty-nine, in the very prime of life, with no heir to follow. And what light had he on conditions after death? Death in such a case was terribly suggestive of penalty for sin. These Old Testament saintssaints indeed, as they weremay have had in some cases brief twilight glimpses of His "day," and rejoiced even in that far-off sight, but the mass did not have as much light as Abraham. They knew nothing of One, who is the dearest object of His Father's heart, having loved them, and the efficacy of whose precious Blood shed for their sins remains forever. What a stupendous difference, not only in Hezekiah's prayer, but even in the gracious answer to it, and the knowledge that the Christian has in this day. Then, "fifteen years" was added to a life that was still all through these years filled with danger and sorrow. Now in Christ we have a life that is eternal and shall "never see death" (John 8:51).

The basis of his plea is that of an upright Israelite under the government of God, "I have loved Thy Word, am not conscious of a divided heart, and have had tokens of Thine approval; do I beseech Thee, remember all this," and he wept aloud. He is thinking of his own faithfulness, no wonder that he weeps! You and I, reader, are like Hezekiah in this, we never sing when we are thus occupied with ourselves. His song speaks a different language, has quite a different accompaniment than begging God to remember his faithfulness, and there are no tears when we too, are speaking of God's faithfulness and patient love. David himself learned that secret when he sang his 77th Psalm.

The answer was not grudgingly given, it was practically instantaneous; for Isaiah had not gone far before he is told to return with quite a different message, and well may we believe that this would make his step much lighter in accord with a lighter heart, for a good man loves to proclaim good tidings. But note that in that gracious answer there is not much reference to Hezekiah's "perfect heart," but what is Jehovah remembering? "David thy father," and surely we may discern behind that David, the true David, through, by, and for whom God overflows with all tender mercy to those whose confidence is in Him.

Fifteen years are to be added to the king's life, as long again as he has already reigned, but the answer goes beyond the petition; He does, according to His wont, more than Hezekiah has asked, for not only shall he recover, but the threatened city shall not be captured. That must have afforded solid ground on which Hezekiah's faith could rest later. Further, Jehovah gives him the sign for which he had asked, the significance of which we must now seek (in dependence on the Lord) to discern.

It will be well to look at the text carefully; for it has more than one possible rendering: Verse 8 reads literally: "Behold, I will cause the shadow of the steps to return, which is gone down on the steps of Ahaz with the sun, backward ten steps. And the sun returned ten steps by the steps which it had gone down." The most difficult word is that rendered "steps." The prime meaning of the root, is "to go up," hence a "means of ascent," hence a "step," as in its first occurrence (Exod. 20:26), "Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar," and would there clearly speak of dependence on one's own conduct, or, as so frequently termed in the New Testament, walk, in approaching God. In the titles of Psalms 120-126 and 131-134, the same word is rendered "degrees," and there refers to those "goings up" to the House of the Lord at Jerusalem three times in the year, at the feasts in which the Lord gathered His people about Himself.

But here we are compelled to see in these literal "steps" a form of sun-dial. Hence the word is rendered "the sun-dial of Ahaz."

We can now transport ourselves in spirit to Hezekiah's palace, and into his chamber. There lies the king, still prone on his couch, but with face no longer turned to the wall, but joy and hope brightening his eye as he looks out of the window to the gardens, in the midst of which, and in full view, stands an obelisk, or column, with a series of steps leading up to it, and at least ten of these are lying in the column's shadow; for the sun has gone so far down as to throw that shadow over that number of steps. But look again, the once darkened steps are now in clearest sunlight'tis the sign for which the king had asked! What wonder that he sings!

Commentators have written copiously discussing as to how this recession of the shadow was effected, but vain and unsatisfactory it all is; nor may we further darken counsel by words without knowledge by entering the discussion. Of three things, however, we are quite sure: first, it was a supernatural intervention of God, controlling His own laws as being above them: next it was a "sign" which necessitated Hezekiah being able to see what had taken place, for unless a sign appeals in some way to the senses, it would be rather an extra strain on faith than the aid that it was intended to be, so that the sun-dial must have been visible from the sick-chamber. In the third place, it was not a meaningless signas if anything that came first could be taken at randombut in accord with the divine wisdom that selected it, must have had in itself deep significance, as have the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper, for instance, and indeed all His works. The sign then must not be severed from the deeper truth that it signified.

Well may we be assured that the king would ponder the meaning of the light being on those steps that had lain in the shadow; and his meditations might lead him to remember the "steps" in which that Ahaz of whom the dial spoke, had walked. His steps were ever in the dark, a mistrust that, as we are definitely told, "wearied" God (Isa. 7:13), and led him to a confidence in, and alliance with, the Assyrian. That was "shady" enough surely; his "steps" were not in the light.

Now the conditions are absolutely reversed; here the Assyrian is not threatening a son of Ahaz, but a son of David (verse 5), who is marked as such by his "steps" being in the light of the God of David's gracelike those re-lit steps, the House of David is walking in the light. The same divine power, the same sovereign grace, that brought back the shadow, had made and kept his heart true, as he had pleaded that it was (verse 3). The sign would teach him this. May it teach you and me the same, that all our steps in the light are due to the same divine power.

As the "sign" had, we believe, a deeper than a superficial meaning, so had the healing by the fig-plaister; but that we will reserve for the place in which it is found.

The chapter again clearly divides into three partsthe third being the outward manifestation of the other two:

1. Verses 1 to 8: The divine counsels, and authoritative announcement of salvation.
2. Verses 9 to 20: The responsive human song of salvation.
3. Verses 21, 22: The invariable double evidence or manifestation of salvation:
(a) God, in Christ, in the healing;
(b) Man, in the light, in the sign.

Let us now turn to the second part and listen to Hezekiah's song, for thus far all has been prose:

10: I said in the noon of my days,
I shall go to the portals of Hades
Of my remnant of days I'm deprived.
11: I said, I shall never see JAH,
JAH in the land of the living.
When I too am dwelling
With all who've ceased living,
Nevermore shall I look upon man!1
2:My house2 is all broken, and carried
As the tent of a shepherd, afar.
I have rolled up my life as a weaver his work,
And me from the thrum3 He hath severed.
From day unto night Thou art bringing
My life to its (sorrowful) ending.
13: I patiently waited till morning;
Like to a lion, so doth He crunch
Every bone in my body.
From day unto night Thou art bringing
My life to its (sorrowful) ending.
14: Like a swallow or crane, so I twittered,
Or mournfully cooed as a dove,
Mine eyes with their up-look are failing.
O Lord, I am greatly oppressed,
Undertake (I beseech Thee), for me!
Now the air changes:
15: What shall I say? He hath spoken
brought it Himself to completion,
Softly and solemnly4 shall I now walk,
all the years of my life-time,
Because of the bitterness (even to death)
wherein my soul has been suff'ring.
16: O my Adonai, by these things men live,
and in all is the life of my spirit.
Thou hast recovered me,
made me return to the land of the living.
17: Bitter, O bitter! But 'twas for my peace,
and Thou hast tenderly loved my
Soul from the pit of corruption,
my sins all behind Thy back casting.
18: For out of Hades no praise comes to Thee:
Death hath no song for Thy glory.
Nor can Thy truth be the hope of the dead
who to the tomb are consigned.
19: The living, the living, shall praise Thee,
even as I do this (glad) day
(Now) shall the father to children make known
Thy truth never failing.
20: Jehovah was ready to save me!
Well may we then touch the harp-strings,5
And sing to those chords all the days of our life
in the house of Jehovah.
It is a delightful song. Evidently as the sickness hung like a heavy cloud over poor Hezekiah, and to his suffering spirit witnessed that God's Hand was upon him in chastening; so, the sickness gone, not merely bodily ease resulted, but his spirit rejoiced in the sunshine of that love that he had lost awhile. How can he help singing? Have you no fellowship with him?

Verses 10 to 14 are retrospective in a mournful minor key, and require little comment. "I had received my sentence," the king says; "in the prime of my life I was ordered to the portal of Hades, and the remainder of my years were to be forfeited. Never again was I to go to Jehovah's house to see Jah,6 and even my fellow-man I was to look upon nevermore. My tabernacle house was to be taken down, broken up, and carried away as some shepherd's tent by a strong wind. I was to consider all my life-work ended, and to roll it up as a weaver does his finished fabric. It was He who would give the finishing stroke and cut me off from that work, as does the weaver the thread that links his work with the loom; nor would that take Him long; one day would be enough, from day to night, and it was all over with me!

"But the night passed, and I put a curb on all my emotionsquieted myself till the morning, but its light brought no relief, only a repetition of yesterday's sufferings awaited me. He crunched my bones as a lion his prey, and I could only repeat that my end must surely come today! Thus I twittered as a swallow or crane, or mourned like the dove, and all the time I was looking upward till my very eyes ached, and my heart was crying out, 'O Lord, see the oppression under which I groantake Thou up my case into Thy Hand, as does one who has gone surety for another and so has to look after him.'"

Beautifully set off by the foil of the dark cloud in the preceding elegy, verses 15 to 20 are like the sunshine that seems to chase away the retreating storm, for the king goes on, "What can I say? How can I worthily celebrate His praise whose anger is so slow to rise, so ready to abate? He spoke, and He did! He promised and He fulfilled! Yet my affliction must not be resultlessthe years added: how shall I best use them? They are few and therefore valuable and not an hour should be wasted. I will walk them humbly and penitently, as one who has needed such chastening, for now I see the benefit of the affliction. Now I see that it is by such sorrows that men truly live; and I do confess that the life of my spirit has been revived by the very griefs that threatened to overwhelm me. I suffered, indeed, I did; but the end in view was my peace, and from the very portals of the pit He has drawn my poor soul by the cords of His love, and (oh, joy unspeakable!) my sins are gone, He sees them no more, they are not before His Face but behind His Back. How far better for me not to have to plead a supposedly faithful lifewhich is more than problematicalbut to know that transgressions are all forgiven and sins covered! But had I gone to the pit! Thine ears would have heard no praises. Shall my salvation from it make no difference? I will sing, for I live! Every day of the fifteen years I will renew my song with the accompaniment of harp-strings7 to Jehovah."

Verses 21 and 22 are again retrospective, telling of the sign and the application of bruised figs. We have already considered the former; but we must not ignore the significance of the latter.

The prophet, acting on behalf of Jehovah, directs a poultice of bruised figs be laid on the ulcer that is here called a "boil," but from its extremely dangerous character, there can be little doubt that it went far beyond the comparatively innocuous, though painful, malady we know under that name.

It was, from the very word used, an ulcer highly inflamed, bringing a burning fever to the patient, and so sapping the vitality of the whole system, that would surely suggest a carbuncle rather than a simple boil.8 But leaving this, as comparatively unimportant, the fig thus applied was a well-known mollifying agent to promote the discharge of the offensive matter from the sore, and so the recovery of the patient.

But we ask, Is then God Himself dependent on natural remedies? Was that why He directed this application? Most surely not. We may look for a deeper significance than merely the physical benefit derived from the application of the figs.

The vine, olive and fig were the three symbolic trees that stood for mankind, and especially for the representative of the race, Israel, and in their respective services, for what God desired to find in man according to his tripartite nature. Thus man was to correspond with the vine in giving Him joy and thus glorifying Him. "Should I leave my wine that cheereth God and man?" (Judges 9:13). Man was to correspond with the "olive" in being a light, a true witness for Him in the earth. Of what then does the "fig" speak? It was the tree yielding food for the body. It was when the Lord was physically hungered that He saw a "fig tree afar off," and since it made claims to vitality in its leafage, He came to it expecting to find food in its fruit (Mark 11:13), symbolically.

Thus the three trees symbolically expressed what God looked for from every part of man's tripartite being: the "fig" told him that he must glorify or satisfy God in his body; the vine that he, as a wise son, must make a glad father, and thus glorify God in the sphere of the soul; and the olive that he must glorify God by being a true and faithful witness, and thus giving light by his spirit.

He has failed from beginning to end in every particular. He is that vine that only produces "stinking" grapes, as we have seen in chapter 5; he has never been a true and faithful witness, and is indeed a "very naughty fig" (Jer. 24:2). But we have all heard of, and some of us know One who is all these: the "true Vine" (John 15), "The faithful and true Witness" (Rev. 3:14), and the very good "Fig" that satisfies God altogether. So in our narrative, this "fig" applied to that death-bearing sore is the good "Fig," Christ, but not as living, but "bruised" (for a fig unbruised could not make a poultice), as He has indeed been, and so, thus bruised, applied to the fatal sore. He, and He only, can and does heal poor man's death-bearing sickness, even that burning ulcer, sin, that inevitably ends in the second death, the lake of fire. So, reader, you and I, with all mankind, must owe all our recovery from that deadly disease to Him, and to Him alone, and that alone as bruised, or we too must perish.

Now, this is why, I venture to suggest, this word as to the "bruised fig" is placed in the third division of the narrative in this book whose very title speaks of "the salvation of Jehovah." It may be, of course, as commentators say, that "some later person, with the feeling that there was a disturbing gap, thought that he would supply it from the second book of Kings, or, as another, that "it was omitted from its place at the close of verse 6 by an oversight, and then added by the same pen." But the numerical structure assures us that even if it were thus due to human frailty, God overruled that frailty for His own deeper purposes; and in that "bruised fig" manifested Himself, in healing and salvation, as indeed He did, and as the third place witnesses here. And where has He, the Saviour-God, been so manifested as in Him who was bruised for our iniquities, by whose stripes we are healed?


1God's messengers by their very names tell of His ability to carry out His purposes whatever they may be. Gabriel is distinctively the "messenger angel," and his name means, "God is mighty," or, "the strength of God." So we are here reminded that Isaiah is the one born of Amoz, which also means "strength," and we who can throw the light of the New Testament on to the Old feel perfectly justified in seeing that it is "strong faith" that results in "the salvation of the Lord."

2Through all time the body has been recognized as only the tabernacle-house of the person within it.

3Thrum, the thread that still may connect the fabric with the weaver's beam.

4The word applies to a solemn walk, suitable to a going to the temple.

5Neginothi n'nagen, lit., "my stringed instruments we will strike," for nahgan is "to strike strings," and so "to play on a stringed instrument."

6The word "Jah" eliminates from the longer "Jehovah" the idea of relationship with men, and speaks of what He is essentially in Himself.

7If everything in the worship of Jehovah in both Tabernacle and Temple was a type, we may be quite sure that these varying instruments of music are not exceptions, but have also their counter parts in this day. But not in material trumpets and harps shall we find them, but in the gentle action of the Spirit on our spirits may the wind-instruments be seen, awakening the silences of nature into music. And so the harp, amid the stringed instruments, may tell us of that Touch of a Master Hand that can make Our dull, dormant affections to thrill with joy. Well may we cry, "Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south" (Cant. 4: 16), but also pray, "Strike, Lord, those stringed instruments till every quivering motion makes melody to Thy praise."

8The word shechin is from a root "to be hot." We find it as one of the plagues of Egypt, hence it is called "the botch of Egypt" (Deut. 28:27). Leviticus tells us that its presence was very favorable for the outgrowth of leprosy, although this did not necessarily follow. By this means Satan was permitted to afflict Job. It was the result of a disordered internal condition; and, in the symbolic way that all these things are used in the Old Testament, it was an evidence of the "ills that flesh is heir to," but "heir to" solely because of the moral disorder that has been passed down from our first parent to all his race. Thus Hezekiah in this narrative undoubtedly stands for that representative nation of Israel, and this sickness illustrated and evidenced the deep moral disorder of the nation, and their consequent sufferings under the hand of God. Psalm 118 (and especially verses 17-19) is the nation's song of recovery after the chastening, and corresponds with this of Hezekiah.