Isaiah 38: To the Gates of Sheol

Isaiah 38: To the Gates of Sheol (audio)

Isaiah 38: To the Gates of Sheol (notes and worksheet / pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Hezekiah falls terminally ill, apparently in the days before or during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.

Key verses:

Isa. 38:17 – Indeed, it was for [my own] welfare that I had such great bitterness; but Your love [has delivered] me from the Pit of destruction, for You have thrown all my sins behind Your back.

Quick summary:

Hezekiah is afflicted by a fatal illness and in desperation cries out to the Lord, who extends the king’s life by 15 years. The shadow of the king’s sundial moves back 10 degrees as a sign of God’s promise. After being healed, Hezekiah recounts his depression and deliverance in a poem that praises the Lord for His forgiveness and faithfulness.

Take note:

The sign of God’s promise to Hezekiah – the backwards movement of the sundial – is similar to an even more dramatic event in Joshua 10:12-14, when the Lord causes the sun to delay its setting for almost a full day so the Israelites may take their vengeance on the Amorites. Both miracles illustrate the Lord’s power over creation and His sovereign right to suspend the orderly principles upon which the universe operates.

The King’s Sickness and Supplication (Isa. 38:1-3)

Hezekiah’s illness precedes Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem, recorded in chapters 36-37. Chapters 38-39 come before chapters 36-37 chronologically but are placed here perhaps because they prepare the way for the rest of Isaiah. The news of Hezekiah’s illness affects the entire nation. Whenever a leader – especially a godly one like Hezekiah – falls ill, it impacts the economy, the military, the national mood and much more. Imagine, as well, how the news creates national panic when Jerusalem is on the cusp of an Assyrian siege. But there’s more. Since Hezekiah does not have a son, he would have to appoint a near relative to the throne. Would God’s promise to David hold true (2 Sam. 7:16)?

Upon learning of his terminal illness (2 Kings 20:1-6, 9-11; 2 Chron. 32:24) the king turns his face to the wall, not in a sulking manner as Ahab has done (1 Kings 21:4), but likely to afford himself privacy as he seeks the Lord’s favor. While some commentators criticize Hezekiah for his “selfish” prayer, the king is praying only as most others would pray. Besides, as a godly king, he likely has his nation’s future in mind at least as much as his own health. Interestingly, Hezekiah does not specifically pray that his life be spared, although it is implied. Rather, his concern seems to be for a godly leader at a time of national calamity.

Even though Hezekiah’s illness is a crushing blow to the king and his subjects, God will use the circumstances of the king’s life to teach us to rely totally on Him to be faithful to His promises.

The Lord’s Salvation and Sign (Isa. 38:4-8)

The Lord replies to Hezekiah’s prayer through Isaiah, who assures the king that Yahweh has heard his prayer and seen his tears. It should be comforting to the believer to know that the sovereign Lord of the universe is able to distinguish the singular cry of a righteous man among the “noise” of mankind’s religious pleadings; that He observes, listens and responds graciously. More than 700 years later James will capture the same truth when he writes, “The intense prayer of the righteous is very powerful” (James 5:16b). Isaiah tells Hezekiah that the Lord will extend his life by 15 years. Since Hezekiah dies in 686 B.C., this prayer and its answer are set in 701 B.C., the year of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. Yahweh’s additional promise is that the Assyrians will not take the capital city, which must bring great comfort to the king’s heart.

The Lord confirms His promise to Hezekiah by a sign. Evidently a unique sundial has been built, a stairway that tells time by casting shadows. Some commentators believe the sundial is a large pillar that casts shadows on a double set of stairs. Herodotus states that the sundial and the division of days into 12-hour segments is an invention of the Babylonians, from whom Ahaz no doubt models his sundial. It’s interesting to note that years earlier, Ahaz rejects a sign from the Lord (Isa. 7:10-12). Now, on a stairway named for the late king, his son receives God’s miraculous assurance. 2 Kings 20:9-11 tells us that Hezekiah is given the choice as to which direction the shadow should move – forward or back. “It’s easy for the shadow to lengthen 10 steps,” Hezekiah says. “No, let the shadow go back 10 steps.” Isaiah calls out to the Lord, who responds by reversing the sundial’s shadow. “How this miracle of the reversal of the sun’s shadow occurred is not known. Perhaps the earth’s rotation was reversed or perhaps the sun’s rays were somehow refracted” (John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1089).

Hezekiah’s Poem (Isa. 38:9-20)

Hezekiah is a writer of psalms (see v. 20) and apparently supervises a team of scholars who copy some of the Old Testament scriptures (Prov. 25:1). Here, in a beautiful poem, the king recounts his feelings throughout a season of illness and recovery. Like others who stand for a time at death’s door, Hezekiah develops a greater appreciation for life. He pictures death as the end of a journey (vv. 11-12), a tent taken down (v. 12a; see also 2 Cor. 5:1-8) and a weaving cut from the loom (v. 12b). The king also discovers a higher plane in his prayer life (vv. 13-14). He cries out to the Lord in the night, feeling like a feeble animal in the clutches of a lion, and in the day, feeling like a helpless bird. He acknowledges his sin and pleads forgiveness, which God grants, throwing the king’s sins behind His back (v. 17). Finally, the king is grateful for new opportunities for service (vv. 15-20). “There was a new humility in his walk, a deeper love for the Lord in his heart, and a new song of praise on his lips. He had a new determination to praise God all the days of his life, for now those days were very important to him. ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’ (Ps. 90:12)” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted, S. Is 38:1).

Is Hezekiah wrong to ask God to spare his life? Some commentators argue yes, citing the fact that had Hezekiah’s life not been extended his son Manasseh would not have been born. Manasseh rules for 55 years and is one of the most wicked kings in Judah’s history. However, this evil king repents after God chastens him and he ends his life serving the Lord (2 Chron. 33:11-20). Further, his grandson is the godly king Josiah, who does much to turn the nation back to the Lord.

Some additional notes about Hezekiah’s poem may prove helpful:

  • The king’s illness is not a result of age but of God’s chastening. Hezekiah notes that he is destined for the gates of Sheol “in the prime of my life” (v. 10).
  • His lament, “I will never see the Lord” (v. 11) does not mean the king fears damnation. Rather, in the context of his poem, the king despairs that he will no longer enjoy the blessings of his earthly life.
  • In the end, Hezekiah sees the benefit in his illness. He acknowledges the Lord’s right and power to give life – and to take it. He sees that he is treated, not as he deserves because of his sin, but according to God’s grace. Like Job, whose suffering is for entirely different purposes, he now sees the Lord in a new and wonderful light (Job 42:5-6).
  • When Hezekiah says, “Death cannot praise You” (v. 18), he is not denying life after death; rather, he is noting that one’s earthly service to the Lord ends when his or her last breath is drawn, and he is grateful for 15 more years to serve the living God.

The Cure (Isa. 38:21-22)

In the parallel account in 2 Kings 20:7-9, these two verses recorded by Isaiah precede the giving of the sign of the shadow on Ahaz’s stairway. This is not a contradiction but a different perspective from which the story is told. A poultice of dried figs is applied to Hezekiah’s infected skin. This is a common remedy for boils and ulcers in these days and it demonstrates that prayer, medicine and the direct intervention of the Lord are all active in the king’s healing.

Scripture teaches that God may heal with or without human supplication and with or without the use of medicine. The Creator of all things needs nothing from His creatures. But it pleases the Lord to answer prayer and He has provided healing elements in nature to help people counter the physical effects of the fall. When we are injured or fall ill, it is no contradiction for us to pray for healing and to avail ourselves of medical attention. The Lord does not always heal supernaturally and our best medical capabilities often fall short, resulting in continued illness and even death. These are reminders that the Lord’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa. 55:8-9) and that even Christians live in a sinful and fallen world. However, we look forward to our future glorification in which our mortal bodies will be transformed into immortal bodies that the ravages of sin cannot touch (see 1 Cor. 15:51-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 21:4).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry comments: “God’s promises are intended not to supersede, but to quicken and encourage, the use of means. Hezekiah is sure to recover, and yet he must take a lump of figs and lay it on the boil, v. 21. We do not trust God, but tempt him, if, when we pray to him for help, we do not second our prayers with our endeavours. We must not put physicians … in the place of God, but make use of them in subordination to God and to his providence … the chief end we should aim at, in desiring life and health, is that we may glorify God, and do good, and improve ourselves in knowledge, and grace, and meetness for heaven” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 38:9).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips