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From The Decline Of The Two Kingdoms
To The Assyrian And Babylonian Captivity


Date of Hezekiah's Sickness - Announcement of his Death -- The Prayer of Hezekiah - The Divine Answer - Meaning and Lessons of it. - The Embassy of Merodach-baladan and its Object - Reception of the Envoys by Hezekiah - The Prophet and the King - Prophecy of Babylon.
(2 KINGS 20; ISAIAH. 38; 39)

THE narrative of Hezekiah's sickness and of the embassy of Merodach-baladan, which in an abbreviated form is also given in the Book of Isaiah* (38:1-8, 21, 22; 39) must, on literary grounds**  and from its position in this history, be regarded as an appendix similar to that added to the account of David's reign in the closing chapters of the Second Book of Samuel.***

* The abbreviation is in the narrative of Hezekiah's sickness and healing. On the other hand, the hymn of praise, Isaiah 38:9-20, is not inserted in 2 Kings, where, indeed, such a hymn would seem out of place.

** This appears from the whole cast of the narrative - even from the general and indeterminate note of time in the opening words: "In those days."

*** Comp. Vol. 5 of this Bible-History.

Whether or not it was taken from a special and distinct record, or else inserted in this place in order not to break the continuity of a narrative which had a spiritual meaning and object of its own, it is certain that the events which it records could not have been posterior to the final departure of Sennacherib from the soil of Palestine.*  

* It is true that Josephus places it after that event (Ant. 10. 2, 1), but his testimony is here manifestly not of any authority.

After that there could not have been occasion for such anxiety in reference to the king of Assyria as to be met by the Divine promise in 2 Kings 20:6; nor could Hezekiah have shown such treasures to the ambassadors of Merodach-baladan, since he had previously stripped himself of them to Sennacherib* (2 Kings 18:14- 16), nor yet from what we know of the history of Merodach-baladan could he then have sent such an embassy with the manifest purpose of an alliance against Assyria, nor, finally, would Hezekiah then have encouraged such overtures.

* This, however, does not seem a very strong argument in view of the recuperative power apparent on previous occasions.

In these circumstances it is a question of historical interest, rather than of practical importance,* whether the sickness of Hezekiah or rather the embassy of Merodach-baladan had been during the reign of Sargon or in that of Sennacherib, whether they had preceded the campaign of the former in Palestine, or that of the latter.** 

* Viewed from the prophetic stand-point. For this is not an ordinary history, and the connection which determines the form of the narrative is not that of succession in the order of time, but of spiritual cause and effect - the inward, not the outward, nexus of events.

** English critics (Rawlinson, Sayce, Cheyne) place it in the time of Sargon; the most competent German authorities(Schrader, Friedrich Delitzsch) in that of Sennacherib.

The text itself seems to point to the period immediately before the invasion of Sennacherib, since in the time of Sargon Jerusalem was not in such danger as is indicated in the reassuring promise given concerning it (ver. 6). But this is not all. On any theory, the numeral "fifteen" years in the promised addition to the spared life of Hezekiah (ver. 6), must have crept into the text by some mistake.

Admittedly, it would not synchronize with the period of Sennacherib's campaign; while on the other and it is certain that Sargon came into hostile contact with Hezekiah in the second year of his reign*  (that after the taking of Samaria), that is, in the sixth or seventh, scarcely in the eighth, year of Hezekiah's reign (2 Kings 18:10).

* See the Article Sargon in Riehm II. p. 1374.

But fifteen years added to this would give at most twenty-two or twenty-three for the reign of Hezekiah, whereas we know that it lasted twenty-nine years (2 Kings 18:2) If, therefore, it is impossible to date the illness of Hezekiah and the embassy in the time of Sargon, we have to assign these events to the period immediately preceding the campaign of Sennacherib in Palestine. It may have been that the number "fifteen," as that of the years added to the life of Hezekiah, had originally been a marginal remark.* 

* The critical questions connected with Isaiah 38:5, 6 cannot here be entertained.

With whomsoever it originated or however it passed into the text, the copyist, annotator, or editor, who regarded the fourteenth year of Hezekiah as that of Sennacherib's invasion (2 Kings 18:13), would naturally deduct this number from twenty-nine, the total of the years of Hezekiah's reign, and so arrive at the number fifteen as that of the years added to the king's life.

But, on the other hand, this also implies that in the view of this early copyist, annotator, or editor, the sickness of Hezekiah and the embassy of Merodach-baladan had immediately preceded the campaign of Sennacherib. The narrative itself offers no special difficulties. As Hezekiah lay sick* the prophet Isaiah was directed to go and bid him set his house in order (2 Samuel 17:23), since his illness would terminate fatally.

* The disease was probably a carbuncle - certainly, not pestilence.

The announcement was received by the king with the utmost alarm and grief. We have here to remember the less clear views entertained under the Old Testament, before the LORD by His coming and Resurrection had "brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel." Indeed, our own experience teaches the gradual unfolding of truth with our growing capacity for its perception. And any anticipation of fullest truth would neither have been in accordance with the character of the preparatory dispensation and the training under it, nor have done honor to the new Revelation which was to follow. Indeed, even now many of us learn slowly the joy of "departing," nor yet this without constant reference to that which is joined to it, the presence with the Lord, of which they of old knew not. Thus it was neither fatalism nor resignation to the inevitable, but faith, when they laid them down to sleep content with the assurance that sleeping or waking they were still with the LORD, and that it was well in this also to leave themselves implicitly in the hands of the covenant-keeping God. And so we can from every point of view understand it, that the Psalmist should have prayed, "O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days" (Psalm 102:24), and that Hezekiah "turned his face to the wall* and prayed. . .and wept with great weeping."

* In token of sadness, as if to look away from everything else, and to concentrate all thought on one's grief. So also Ahab (1 Kings 21:4), although in a very different spirit.

For, assuredly, this being taken away in the midst of his days and of his work, would seem to him not only a mark of God's disfavor, but actual punishment. It is from this point of view, rather than as the expression of self-righteousness, that we regard the language of Hezekiah's plea. And apart from this there was not anything blameworthy either in the wish that his life should be spared, or in the prayer for it, although here also we cannot but mark the lower stand-point of those under the Old Testament.*  The prayer of Hezekiah, as for the present we simply note, was heard. Before Isaiah had passed "the middle city"**  he was Divinely directed to return to the king with the message that his request was granted, and to add to the promise of lengthened days the assurance of the safety of the kingdom of David and of Jerusalem***  in anticipation of those dangers which must have been foreseen as threatening the near future.

* The suggestion of Josephus and of some of the fathers: that the grief of Hezekiah was caused or increased by the circumstance that, at the time, he had not a son to succeed him, is not only wholly improbable but unsupported. The Rabbis however put it still more realistically, and explain: "thou shalt die" - in this world, "and not live" - in the world to come, because Hezekiah had neglected the command in not having children.

** So the Massoretic text. The Qeri has: "court" for "city" - which looks like an emendation to heighten the miraculous.

*** This addition, so far from interrupting the message of Isaiah, forms, on the view of the matter which we are about to present, an important integral part of it.

Thus far all had been as might have been looked for in the course of this history. But what followed suggests questions of the deepest importance. Isaiah had not only promised Divine healing, but that within the briefest period* Hezekiah should once more go up to the Temple - no doubt to return thanks.

* Whether or not, the expression: "on the third day" be taken literally, manifestly it was intended to convey, not only the briefest period, but one within which such a result could not have been reached had the healing been in the ordinary course.

Yet he conjoined with this miraculous help the application of a common remedy, when he directed that a lump of figs should be laid on the boil. And as if still further to point the contrast, Hezekiah asked for "a sign" of the promise, and the prophet not only gave it, but allowed him a choice in that which from any point of view implied direct Divine interposition. For evidently Hezekiah asked for such "a sign" as would be a pledge to him of God's direct intervention on his behalf, while, on the other hand, the alternative proposed to him, that the shadow on the steps of the sun-clock of Ahaz,*   might either move forwards or backwards, forbids any natural explanation of it, such as that of a solar eclipse which Isaiah had either naturally or supernaturally foreknown.**  Hezekiah chose what to him seemed the more difficult, or rather the more inconceivable alternative - that of the shadow receding ten steps. And in answer to Isaiah's prayer, the "sign" desired was actually given.

* It is interesting to learn that Ahaz had - probably on his visit to Damascus (2 Kings 16:10) - seen and brought to Jerusalem some of the scientific appliances of the great empire of the East. It is impossible to determine whether this mode of measuring the progress of time (not strictly hours) was by a sun-dial, the invention of which Herodotus ascribes to the Babylonians (2. 109). According to Ideler (Handb. d. Chronol. 1. p. 485) it was a gnomon, or index, surrounded by concentric circles, by which the time of the day was marked by the lengthening shadow. But the term "steps" seems rather to indicate an obelisk surrounded by steps, the shadow on which marked the hours, so that the shadow falling in the morning westwards first on the lowest step, gradually ascended to the plane on the top, and after midday again descended the steps eastwards. As the text seems to imply that there were twenty such "steps," they must have marked the quarters of an hour, and in that case the event have happened about half-past two o'clock p.m. (comp. Kamphausen in Riehm's Worterb).

** The suggestion of a solar eclipse (made by Mr. Bosanquet in the Journal of the As. Soc. Vol. 15.), which seems adopted by Canon Rawlinson (Speaker's Comment.), who ascribes to Isaiah a "supernatural fore-knowledge" of the event, is untenable, even on the ground that it would imply a supernatural influence on Hezekiah in his choice of the retrogression of the shadow.

It is not difficult to perceive the symbolical significance of this sign. As Isaiah had been commissioned to offer to Ahaz "a sign" of the promised deliverance, and to leave him the choice of it, "either in the depth or in the height above" (Isaiah 7:11), so here a similar alternative was presented to Hezekiah. As Ahaz in his trust in natural means and his distrust of Jehovah had refused, so Hezekiah in his distrust of natural means and trust of Jehovah asked for a sign. And lastly, even as Hezekiah had feared that his life-day would have ended in its mid-day hour, so now, when it was to be lengthened, did the falling shadow climb up again the ten steps to its mid-day mark.

But there are also deeper lessons to be learnt from this history. The change in the announcement of what was to befall Hezekiah, in answer to his prayer, is of eternal meaning. It encourages us "always to pray" - not excluding from the range of our petitions what are commonly called "things temporal." And yet the very idea of prayer also excludes any thought of the absolute certainty of such answer as had been primarily contemplated in the prayer. For prayer and its answer are not mechanically, they are morally connected, just as between Isaiah's promised sign and its bestowal, the prayer of the prophet intervened (2 Kings 20:11). As miracle is not magic, so prayer is not necessitarianism; and on looking back upon our lives we have to thank God as often for prayers unanswered as for prayers answered.

Yet another lesson connected with the change in the message which Isaiah was to bring to Hezekiah has been already noted by Jerome. There is widest bearing in this remark of his (on Ezekiel 33), that it does not necessarily follow because a prophet predicts an event that what he had predicted should happen. "For," as he adds, the prophet "did not predict in order that it might happen, but lest it should happen." And the immutability of God's counsels is not that of fatalism, but depends on the continuance of the circumstances which had determined them.

This may help us to understand another and in some respects more difficult question. Evidently alike the announcement of Hezekiah's untimely death and its revocation were determined by his relation towards God. This would in turn have its important bearing upon the conduct of the king in the coming Assyrian war, which concerned not only Hezekiah personally, but the whole Davidic line and the fate of Judah itself. But the lessons taught the king first by his danger and then by his restoration were precisely those which Hezekiah needed to learn if, obedient to the admonitions of Isaiah, and believing the promise of the LORD, he was consistently to carry out the will of Jehovah amidst the temptations and difficulties of the Assyrian invasion. This, not only because he had had experience of the truth of prophetic promise, but because he had learned, as he could not otherwise have been taught, that God answered prayer; that He was merciful and forgiving, and able to turn aside the most threatening danger, even at the extreme moment. In truth, what was afterwards witnessed in the deliverance of Jerusalem was on a large scale the same that Hezekiah himself had experienced in his healing. Thus the lessons of his recovery were intended as spiritual preparation for what was so soon to follow.

It still remains to refer more particularly to "the sign" itself on the sun-clock of Ahaz. From the circumstance that in the original account in the Book of Kings there is no mention of alteration in the relative position of the sun (as in the poetic quotation in Joshua 10:12, 13), but of a possible descent or ascent of the shadow,* and that even this was to be only observable on the step-clock of Ahaz, we infer that, in the view of the writer, "the sign" was local, and hence could not have implied an interference with the regular order of Nature.

* As already stated, the account of the event in the Book of Isaiah (38:8) is evidently not the original one, but possibly abbreviated from that in the Book of Kings. Whether, in its present form ver. 6 is really due to a later editor, or the reference in it to the sun, not the shadow, be only a popular mode of description, is not of any practical importance for our present purpose.

The Scriptural narrative conveys only that in that particular place something had occurred which made the shadow on the dial to retrograde, although at the same time we can have no hesitation in saying that this something was Divinely caused.

What this "something" of a purely local character was, we have not the means of ascertaining. Of the various suggestions most probability attaches to that of an extraordinary refraction of the sun-rays, which has been recorded to have produced similar phenomena in other places.*  If such Divine intervention be called a miracle, we demur not to the idea nor to the designation - though we prefer that of "a sign." But we add that, in a modified sense, Divine interpositions as signs to us are not so unfrequent as some people imagine.

* Thus the Prior Romnald, in Metz, notes on the 27th March, 1703, a similar retrogression on the sun-dial of about an hour and a half (= six steps on the clock of Ahaz), due to a refraction of the sun's rays by a vapor cloud.

The fame of Hezekiah's healing spread far and wide, with a rapidity not uncommon in the East. It reached a monarch who, especially at that time, was sorely in need of help, Divine or human. Few chapters in history suggest more interesting episodes than that of Merodach-baladan,* who contended for the independence and supremacy and for the crown of Babylonia successively with Tiglath-pileser, Sargon, and Sennacherib - and who was by turns successful, vanquished, driven away and restored, and once more a fugitive. This is not the place to give such outline of his history as may be gathered from the notices of Berossus, the Chaldee historian,**  from the canon of Ptolemy, the Bible, and Assyrian inscriptions.*** 

* The writing "Berodach" in 2 Kings is evidently a clerical error. In the Assyrian inscriptions Marduk-habal-iddina, "Merodach gave a son," is described as "the son of Yakin;" but this designating, not his father, but the dynasty to which he belonged, which ruled over "Blt-Yakin." (Comp. Schrader, u.s., p. 342).

** In the extracts from Alexander Polyhistor, preserved by Eusebius.

*** For the history of Merodach-baladan I must refer to Schrader.

Suffice it here, that the date of his embassy to Hezekiah must have coincided with a brief period when at the beginning of Sennacherib's reign he once more occupied the throne of Babylonia for six months. It was only natural that in prospect of his conflict with Assyria he should have sought alliances in every quarter, and that the fame of Hezekiah's miraculous healing, of his great wealth and power - all no doubt exaggerated in Eastern fashion - should have induced him to send an embassy to Jerusalem. A diversion there, a possible confederacy against Assyria in the far west, such as was afterwards really formed, would have been of the greatest use to his cause. Equally natural was it, alike with reference to Assyria and to Hezekiah, that such an intention should not have been avowed, nor perhaps the possibility of an alliance formally discussed, till the ambassadors had been able to judge for themselves of the exact state of matters in Jerusalem. And so they went ostensibly to bring to Hezekiah congratulatory letters on his recovery, and "a present."*  But all parties including Sennacherib on the one side, and the prophet Isaiah on the other - understood the real object of the embassy.

* In 2 Chronicles 32:31 the ostensible object is stated to have been "to inquire about the wonder that was done in the land." Such an inquiry as to the real power of the God of Judah would, from the heathen standpoint, not be inconsistent with the real aim of the mission.

All this fully explains the Biblical narrative. It is not necessary to suppose that the question of a treaty against Assyria was actually discussed between Hezekiah and the envoys of Merodach-baladan. Indeed, as this is not stated in Scripture, it seems unlikely that a treaty had been made or even proposed. In any case, it could not have been carried out, since long before it could have been acted upon Merodach-baladan was driven away. On the other hand, it seems equally clear that Hezekiah, however reticent he may have been, secretly favored the design of the embassy. It was with this view -- to give practical evidence of his might - that "Hezekiah hearkened* unto them, and shewed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and the house of his armor, and all that was found in his treasures; there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not" (2 Kings 20:13).

* In Isaiah 39:2 we read, "Hezekiah rejoiced." Perhaps this is the better reading.

It was a disingenuous device when Hezekiah, in answer to the questioning of Isaiah, sought to divert him by a reference to the "far country" whence the ambassadors had come, as if flattering to Jewish national pride, and implying the acknowledged supremacy of Jehovah's power. Such had not been the object of the prophet in asking about the country of these strangers. By eliciting that they had come from Babylon, he would indicate to Hezekiah that his inmost purpose in showing them all his treasures had been read. But to know it was to pronounce the Divine disapprobation of any such alliance against Assyria. This explains the severity of the punishment afterwards denounced upon Hezekiah for an offense which otherwise might have seemed trivial. But this had clearly appeared, that Hezekiah had not learned the lessons which his late danger and God-granted recovery were intended to teach; nor did he learn them otherwise than in the school of extreme anguish, after all his worldly policy had ended in defeat, his land been desolated, and the victorious host of Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem. And this seems to be the meaning of the reference in 2 Chronicles 32:25, 26, to the ungratefulness and the pride of the king after his miraculous recovery, as well as of this other notice (ver. 31), that in the matter of the ambassadors, God had left Hezekiah to himself, to try him, and "know all that was in his heart."*

* Josephus also takes the same view of the object of the Babylonian mission (Ant. x. 2, 2).

But with God there was not any changeableness. As afterwards Isaiah denounced the alliance with Egypt, so now he spoke the Divine judgment on the hoped-for treaty with Babylon. So far from help being derived from such alliance, Israel's future doom and misery would come from Babylon, and the folly of Hezekiah would alike appear and be punished in the exile and servitude of his descendants. Thus in the sequence of God this sowing of disobedience should be followed by a harvest of judgment. Yet for the present would there be "peace and continuance" - till the measure of iniquity was filled. And Hezekiah acquiesced in the sentence, owning its justice and grateful for its delay. Yet here also we perceive shortcoming. Hezekiah did not reach up to the high level of his father David in circumstances somewhat similar (2 Samuel 24:17), nor was his even the humble absolute submission of Eli of old (1 Samuel 3:18).*

* Comp. Cheyne, u.s. I., p. 231.

But as throughout this history Isaiah appeared as the true prophet of God by the consistency of his utterance of the Divine Will against all heathen alliances, by his resistance to all worldly policy, however specious, and even by his bearing on the twofold occasion which forms the subject of the present narrative, so did he now rise to the full height of his office. Never before had there been so unmistakable a prediction of the future as when Isaiah in the full height of Assyria's power announced that the world-empire of the future would not belong to it, but to vanquished Babylonia, and that Judah's judgment would not come from their present dreaded enemies, but from those who now had sought their alliance.*

* We mark that Isaiah 39 is followed by 40-47 The significance of the conjunction of these prophecies requires not to be pointed out. The one is the Divine counterpart of the other.

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