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Isaiah xxxviii.; xxxix. (DATE UNCERTAIN).

To the great national drama of Jerusalem's deliverance, there have been added two scenes of a personal kind, relating to her king. Chaps. xxxviii. and xxxix. are the narrative of the sore sickness and recovery of King Hezekiah, and of the embassy which Merodach-baladan sent him, and how he received the embassy. The date of these events is difficult to determine. If, with Canon Cheyne, we believe in an invasion of Judah by Sargon in 711, we shall be tempted to refer them, as he does, to that date—the more so that the promise of fifteen additional years made to Hezekiah in 711, the fifteenth year of his reign, would bring it up to the twenty-nine, at which it is set in 2 Kings xviii. 2. That, however, would flatly contradict the statement both of Isaiah xxxviii. 1 and 2 Kings xx. 1 that Hezekiah's sickness fell in the days of the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib; that is, after 705. But to place the promise of fifteen additional years to Hezekiah after 705, when we know he had been reigning for at least twenty years, would be to contradict the verse, just cited, which sums up the years of his reign as twenty-nine. This is, in fact,376 one of the instances, in which we must admit our present inability to elucidate the chronology of this portion of the book of Isaiah. Mr. Cheyne thinks the editor mistook the siege by Sennacherib for the siege by Sargon. But as the fact of a siege by Sargon has never been satisfactorily established, it seems safer to trust the statement that Hezekiah's sickness occurred in the reign of Sennacherib, and to allow that there has been an error somewhere in the numbering of the years. It is remarkable that the name of Merodach-baladan does not help us to decide between the two dates. There was a Merodach-baladan in rebellion against Sargon in 710, and there was one in rebellion against Sennacherib in 705. It has not yet been put past doubt as to whether these two are the same. The essential is that there was a Merodach-baladan alive, real or only claimant king of Babylon, about 705, and that he was likely at that date to treat with Hezekiah, being himself in revolt against Assyria. Unable to come to any decision about the conflicting numbers, we leave uncertain the date of the events recounted in chaps. xxxviii., xxxix. The original form of the narrative, but wanting Hezekiah's hymn, is given in 2 Kings xx.7272   Isa. xxxviii., xxxix., has evidently been abridged from 2 Kings xx. and in some points has to be corrected by the latter. Chap. xxxviii. 21, 22, of course, must be brought forward before ver. 7.

We have given to this chapter the title "An Old Testament Believer's Deathbed; or, The Difference Christ has made," not because this is the only spiritual suggestion of the story, but because it seems to the present expositor as if this were the predominant feeling377 left in Christian minds after reading for us the story. In Hezekiah's conduct there is much of courage for us to admire, as there are other elements to warn us; but when we have read the whole story, we find ourselves saying, What a difference Christ has made to me! Take Hezekiah from two points of view, and then let the narrative itself bring out this difference.

Here is a man, who, although he lived more than twenty-five centuries ago is brought quite close to our side. Death, who herds all men into his narrow fold, has crushed this Hebrew king so close to us that we can feel his very heart beat. Hezekiah's hymn gives us entrance into the fellowship of his sufferings. By the figures he so skilfully uses he makes us feel that pain, the shortness of life, the suddenness of death and the utter blackness beyond were to him just what they are to us. And yet this kinship in pain, and fear and ignorance only makes us the more aware of something else which we have and he has not.

Again, here is a man to whom religion gave all it could give without the help of Christ; a believer in the religion out of which Christianity sprang, perhaps the most representative Old Testament believer we could find, for Hezekiah was at once the collector of what was best in its literature and the reformer of what was worst in its worship; a man permeated by the past piety of his Church, and enjoying as his guide and philosopher the boldest prophet who ever preached the future developments of its spirit. Yet when we put Hezekiah and all that Isaiah can give him on one side, we shall again feel for ourselves on the other what a difference Christ has made.

This difference a simple study of the narrative will make clear.


In those days Hezekiah became sick unto death. They were critical days for Judah—no son born to the king (2 Kings xxi. 1), the work of reformation in Judah not yet consolidated, the big world tossing in revolution all around. Under God, everything depended on an experienced ruler; and this one, without a son to succeed him, was drawing near to death. We will therefore judge Hezekiah's strong passion for life to have been patriotic as well as selfish. He stood in the midtime of his days, with a faithfully executed work behind him and so good an example of kinghood that for years Isaiah had not expressed his old longing for the Messiah. The Lord had counted Hezekiah righteous; that twin-sign had been given him which more than any other assured an Israelite of Jehovah's favour—a good conscience and success in his work. Well, therefore, might he cry when Isaiah brought him the sentence of death, Ah, now, Jehovah, remember, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thine eyes. And Hezekiah wept with a great weeping.

There is difficulty in the strange story which follows. The dial was probably a pyramid of steps on the top of which stood a short pillar or obelisk. When the sun rose in the morning, the shadow cast by the pillar would fall right down the western side of the pyramid to the bottom of the lowest step. As the sun ascended the shadow would shorten, and creep up inch by inch to the foot of the pillar. After noon, as the sun began to descend to the west, the shadow would creep down the eastern steps; and the steps were so measured that379 each one marked a certain degree of time. It was probably afternoon when Isaiah visited the king. The shadow was going down according to the regular law; the sign consisted in causing the shadow to shrink up the steps again. Such a reversal of the ordinary progress of the shadow may have been caused in either of two ways: by the whole earth being thrown back on its axis, which we may dismiss as impossible, or by the occurrence of the phenomenon known as refraction. Refraction is a disturbance in the atmosphere by which the rays of the sun are bent or deflected from their natural course into an angular one. In this case, instead of shooting straight over the top of the obelisk, the rays of the sun had been bent down and inward, so that the shadow fled up to the foot of the obelisk. There are many things in the air which might cause this; it is a phenomenon often observed; and the Scriptural narratives imply that on this occasion it was purely local (2 Chron. xxxii. 31). Had we only the narrative in the book of Isaiah, the explanation would have been easy. Isaiah, having given the sentence of death, passed the dial in the palace courtyard, and saw the shadow lying ten degrees farther up than it should have done, the sight of which coincided with the inspiration that the king would not die; and Isaiah went back to announce to Hezekiah his reprieve, and naturally call his attention to this as a sign, to which a weak and desponding man would be glad to cling. But the original narrative in the book of Kings tells us that Isaiah offered Hezekiah a choice of signs: that the shadow should either advance or retreat, and that the king chose the latter. The sign came in answer to Isaiah's prayer, and is narrated to us as a special Divine interposition. But a medicine accompanied it, and380 Hezekiah recovered through a poultice of figs laid on the boil from which he suffered.

While recognising for our own faith the uselessness of a discussion on this sign offered to a sick man, let us not miss the moral lessons of so touching a narrative, nor the sympathy with the sick king which it is fitted to produce, and which is our best introduction to the study of his hymn.

Isaiah had performed that most awful duty of doctor or minister the telling of a friend that he must die. Few men have not in their personal experience a key to the prophet's feelings on this occasion. The leaving of a dear friend for the last time; the coming out into the sunlight which he will nevermore share with us; the passing by the dial; the observation of the creeping shadow; the feeling that it is only a question of time, the passion of prayer into which that feeling throws us that God may be pleased to put off the hour and spare our friend; the invention, that is born, like prayer, of necessity: a cure we suddenly remember; the confidence which prayer and invention bring between them; the return with the joyful news; the giving of the order about the remedy—cannot many in their degree rejoice with Isaiah in such an experience? But he has, too, a conscience of God and God's work to which none of us may pretend: he knows how indispensable to that work his royal pupil is, and out of this inspiration he prophesies the will of the Lord that Hezekiah shall recover.

Then the king, with a sick man's sacramental longing, asks a sign. Out through the window the courtyard is visible; there stands the same step-dial of Ahaz, the long pillar on the top of the steps, the shadow creeping down them through the warm afternoon sunshine. To the sick man it must have been like the finger381 of death coming nearer. Shall the shadow, asks the prophet, go forward ten steps or go back ten steps? It is easy, says the king, alarmed, for the shadow to go down ten steps. Easy for it to go down! Has he not been feeling that all the afternoon? "Do not," we can fancy him saying, with the gasp of a man who has been watching its irresistible descent—"do not let that black thing come farther; but let the shadow go backward ten steps."

The shadow returned, and Hezekiah got his sign. But when he was well, he used it for more than a sign. He read a great spiritual lesson in it. The time, which upon the dial had been apparently thrown back, had in his life been really thrown back; and God had given him his years to live over again. The past was to be as if it had never been, its guilt and weakness wiped out. Thou hast cast behind Thy back all my sins. As a newborn child Hezekiah felt himself uncommitted by the past, not a sin's-doubt nor a sin's-cowardice in him, with the heart of a little child, but yet with the strength and dignity of a grown man, for it is the magic of tribulation to bring innocence with experience. I shall go softly, or literally, with dignity or caution, as in a procession, all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, upon such things do men live; and altogether in them is the life of my spirit.... Behold, for perfection was it bitter to me, so bitter. And through it all there breaks a new impression of God. What shall I say? He hath both spoken with me, and Himself hath done it. As if afraid to impute his profits to the mere experience itself, In them is the life of my spirit, he breaks in with Yea, Thou hast recovered me; yea, Thou hast made me to live. And then, by a very pregnant construction, he adds, 382Thou hast loved my soul out of the pit of destruction; that is, of course, loved, and by Thy love lifted, but he uses the one word loved, and gives it the active force of drawing or lifting. In this lay the head and glory of Hezekiah's experience. He was a religious man, an enthusiast for the Temple services, and had all his days as his friend the prophet whose heart was with the heart of God; but it was not through any of these means God came near him, not till he lay sick and had turned his face to the wall. Then indeed he cried, What shall I say? He hath both spoken with me, and Himself hath done it!

Forgiveness, a new peace, a new dignity and a visit from the living God! Well might Hezekiah exclaim that it was only through a near sense of death that men rightly learned to live. Ah, Lord, it is upon these things that men live; and wholly therein is the life of my spirit. It is by these things men live, and therein I have learned for the first time what life is!

In all this at least we cannot go beyond Hezekiah, and he stands an example to the best Christian among us. Never did a man bring richer harvest from the fields of death. Everything that renders life really life—peace, dignity, a new sense of God and of His forgiveness—these were the spoils which Hezekiah won in his struggle with the grim enemy. He had snatched from death a new meaning for life; he had robbed death of its awful pomp, and bestowed this on careless life. Hereafter he should walk with the step and the mien of a conqueror—I shall go in solemn procession all my years because of the bitterness of my soul—or with the carefulness of a worshipper, who sees at the end of his course the throne of the Most High God, and makes all his life an ascent thither.

383This is the effect which every great sorrow and struggle has upon a noble soul. Come to the streets of the living. Who are these, whom we can so easily distinguish from the crowd by their firmness of step and look of peace, walking softly where some spurt and some halt, holding, without rest or haste, the tenor of their way, as if they marched to music heard by their ears alone? These are they which have come out of great tribulation. They have brought back into time the sense of eternity. They know how near the invisible worlds lie to this one, and the sense of the vast silences stills all idle laughter in their hearts. The life that is to other men chance or sport, strife or hurried flight, has for them its allotted distance; is for them a measured march, a constant worship. For the bitterness of their soul they go in procession all their years. Sorrow's subjects, they are our kings; wrestlers with death, our veterans: and to the rabble armies of society they set the step of a nobler life.

Count especially the young man blessed, who has looked into the grave before he has faced the great temptations of the world, and has not entered the race of life till he has learned his stride in the race with death. They tell us that on the outside of civilisation, where men carry their lives in their hands, a most thorough politeness and dignity are bred, in spite of the want of settled habits, by the sense of danger alone; and we know how battle and a deadly climate, pestilence or the perils of the sea have sent back to us the most careless of our youth with a self-possession and regularity of mind, that it would have been hopeless to expect them to develop amid the trivial trials of village life.

But the greatest duty of us men is not to seek nor to pray for such combats with death. It is when God has384 found these for us to remain true to our memories of them. The hardest duty of life is to remain true to our psalms of deliverance, as it is certainly life's greatest temptation to fall away from the sanctity of sorrow, and suffer the stately style of one who knows how near death hovers to his line of march to degenerate into the broken step of a wanton life. This was Hezekiah's temptation, and this is why the story of his fall in the thirty-ninth chapter is placed beside his vows in the thirty-eighth—to warn us how easy it is for those who have come conquerors out of a struggle with death to fall a prey to common life. He had said, I will walk softly all my years; but how arrogantly and rashly he carried himself when Merodach-baladan sent the embassy to congratulate him on his recovery. It was not with the dignity of the veteran, but with a childish love of display, perhaps also with the too restless desire to secure an alliance, that he showed the envoys his storehouse, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and all the house of his armour and all that was found in his treasures. There was nothing which Hezekiah did not show them in his house nor in all his dominion. In this behaviour there was neither caution nor sobriety, and we cannot doubt but that Hezekiah felt the shame of it when Isaiah sternly rebuked him and threw upon all his house the dark shadow of captivity.

It is easier to win spoils from death than to keep them untarnished by life. Shame burns warm in a soldier's heart when he sees the arms he risked life to win rusting for want of a little care. Ours will not burn less if we discover that the strength of character we brought with us out of some great tribulation has been slowly weakened by subsequent self-indulgence of385 vanity. How awful to have fought for character with death only to squander it upon life! It is well to keep praying, "My God, suffer me not to forget my bonds and my bitterness. In my hours of wealth and ease, and health and peace, by the memory of Thy judgements deliver me, good Lord."


So far then Hezekiah is an example and warning to us all. With all our faith in Christ, none of us, in the things mentioned, may hope to excel this Old Testament believer. But notice very particularly that Hezekiah's faith and fortitude are profitable only for this life. It is when we begin to think, What of the life to come? that we perceive the infinite difference Christ has made.

We know what Hezekiah felt when his back was turned on death, and he came up to life again. But what did he feel when he faced the other way, and his back was to life? With his back to life and facing deathwards, Hezekiah saw nothing, that was worth hoping for. To him to die was to leave God behind him, to leave the face of God as surely as he was leaving the face of man. I said, I shall not see Jah, Jah in the land of the living; I shall gaze upon man no more with the inhabitants of the world. The beyond was not to Hezekiah absolute nothingness, for he had his conceptions, the popular conceptions of his time, of a sort of existence that was passed by those who had been men upon earth. The imagination of his people figured the gloomy portals of a nether world—Sheol, the Hollow (Dante's "hollow realm"), or perhaps the Craving—into which death herds the shades of men, bloodless, voiceless, without love or hope or aught that386 makes life worth living. With such an existence beyond, to die to life here was to Hezekiah like as when a weaver rolls up the finished web. My life may be a pattern for others to copy, a banner for others to fight under, but for me it is finished. Death has cut it from the loom. Or it was like going into captivity. Mine age is removed and is carried away from me into exile, like a shepherd's tent—exile which to a Jew was the extreme of despair, implying as it did absence from God, and salvation and the possibility of worship. Sheol cannot praise Thee; death cannot celebrate Thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy faithfulness.

Of this then at the best Hezekiah was sure: a respite of fifteen years—nothing beyond. Then the shadow would not return upon the dial; and as the king's eyes closed upon the dear faces of his friends, his sense of the countenance of God would die too, and his soul slip into the abyss, hopeless of God's faithfulness.

It is this awful anticlimax, which makes us feel the difference Christ has made. This saint stood in almost the clearest light that revelation cast before Jesus. He was able to perceive in suffering a meaning and derive from it a strength not to be exceeded by any Christian. Yet his faith is profitable for this life alone. For him character may wrestle with death over and over again, and grow the stronger for every grapple, but death wins the last throw.

It may be said that Hezekiah's despair of the future is simply the morbid thoughts of a sick man or the exaggerated fancies of a poet. "We must not," it is urged, "define a poet's language with the strictness of a theology." True, and we must also make some allowance for a man dying prematurely in the midst of his387 days. But if this hymn is only poetry, it would have been as easy to poetise on the opposite possibilities across the grave. So quick an imagination as Hezekiah's could not have failed to take advantage of the slightest scintilla of glory that pierced the cloud. It must be that his eye saw none, for all his poetry droops the other way. We seek in heaven for praise in its fulness; there we know God's servants shall see Him face to face. But of this Hezekiah had not the slightest imagination; he anxiously prayed that he might recover to strike the stringed instruments all the days of his life in the house of Jehovah. The living, the living, he praiseth thee, as I do this day; the father to the children shall make known Thy truth. But they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy faithfulness.

Now compare all this with the Psalms of Christian hope; with the faith that fills Paul; with his ardour who says, To me to depart is far better; with the glory which John beholds with open face: the hosts of the redeemed praising God and walking in the light of His face, all the geography of that country laid down, and the plan of the new Jerusalem declared to the very fashion of her stones; with the audacity since of Christian art and song: the rapture of Watts' hymns and the exhilaration of Wesley's praise as they contemplate death; and with the joyful and exact anticipations of so many millions of common men as they turn their faces to the wall. In all these, in even the Book of the Revelation, there is of course a great deal of pure fancy. But imagination never bursts in anywhither till fact has preceded. And it is just because there is a great fact standing between us and Hezekiah that the pureness of our faith and the richness of our imagination of immortality differ so much from his. That fact is388 Jesus Christ, His resurrection and ascension. It is He who has made all the difference and brought life and immortality to light.

And we shall know the difference if we lose our faith in that fact. For except Christ be risen from the dead and gone before to a country which derives all its reality and light for our imagination from that Presence, which once walked with us in the flesh, there remains for us only Hezekiah's courage to make the best of a short reprieve, only Hezekiah's outlook into Hades when at last we turn our faces to the wall. But to be stronger and purer for having met with death, as he was, only that we must afterwards succumb, with our purity and our strength, to death—this is surely to be, as Paul said, of all men the most miserable.

Better far to own the power of an endless life, which Christ has sealed to us, and translate Hezekiah's experience into the new calculus of immortality. If to have faced death as he did was to inherit dignity and peace and sense of power, what glory of kingship and queenship must sit upon those faces in the other world who have been at closer quarters still with the King of terrors, and through Christ their strength have spoiled him of his sting and victory! To have felt the worst of death and to have triumphed—this is the secret of the peaceful hearts, unfaltering looks and faces of glory, which pass in solemn procession of worship through all eternity before the throne of God.

We shall consider the Old Testament views of a future life and resurrection more fully in chaps. xxvii. and xxx. of this volume.

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