This is one of the most intriguing incidents in the Bible. Anybody who has passed through a terrible illness and has stared death in the face can relate to this story of Hezekiah and his prayer. The thing that jumps off the page is not what Hezekiah prayed but rather the sign offered by God. How many prayers have we prayed that either began or ended with the phrase, “Show me a sign?” or some similar plea? In Hezekiah’s case, a sign was neither asked for nor sought after, yet it was given by God. There are some lessons to be learned in this story about a godly king who prayed a powerful and effective prayer.
1. The setting, verse 1a
In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death.
Chapter 38 is a parallel of 2 Kings 20:1—21 and 2 Chronicles 32:24—33. The phrase “in those days” serves to establish the general time frame of Hezekiah’s illness. It sends us back to 36:1 where we read about the impending Assyrian siege—
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.
The exact nature of Hezekiah’s illness is not stated, though use of the phrase “in those days” seems also to indicate that the king’s illness was lingering. Some have suggested he was afflicted with boils or perhaps even cancer. Whatever the disease was it took a prophet, Isaiah, to put the disease into perspective.
King Hezekiah ruled a total of 29 years, 15 years of which took place after this event. His sickness, then, occurred in the mid-point of his career. This was clearly a bad year for Hezekiah; Jerusalem was under siege by the Assyrians and he was about to receive some really bad news regarding some sickness that had been plaguing him for a period of time.
2. Bearing bad news, 1b
The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”
The king was about 38 when Isaiah was sent to him with this bad news. This sickness, whatever it may have been, was not, we may assume, a judgment from God, but God’s command to Hezekiah is most instructive; it suggests that Hezekiah had a solemn duty to his family and his kingdom to arrange for their future care.
What Isaiah proclaimed to Hezekiah was a prophecy, but it was a prophecy with a difference: it was conditional. A conditional prophecy is to be distinguished from most OT prophecies; generally speaking, a prophecy is a statement of a fact ahead of time. It is a declaration of what will happen or what must be. However, a conditional prophecy was given in order that it might not need to be fulfilled, as in the case of Jonah’s proclamation to Nineveh (Jonah 3:4).
On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh served to rouse them to repentance, staying God’s judgment. Here, Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah moved the king to “put his house in order.” Unlike the sinful city of Nineveh, Hezekiah did not need to repent, but apparently the disease that was destined to take his life was a catalyst to push the king into doing some things he should be have been doing all along. Hezekiah at this time had no son; therefore the dynasty of David, in which centered all the Messianic hopes, was threatened. If the king died with no natural heir, the Davidic dynasty would die too.
3. A prayer full of integrity, verses 2, 3
Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is the nature of Hezekiah’s prayer: he did not ask to be healed or for his life to be extended. Turning his face to the wall, Hezekiah reminded the Lord that his faith in Him was without equivocation. The phrase “wholehearted devotion” means there was no double-mindedness about the king’s relationship with God. God’s favorable reply to Hezekiah shows that the king’s estimate of himself was right and accurate! There was no boasting in this prayer, it was, among other things, a result of doing exactly what he was told to do.
Even though Hezekiah “wept bitterly,” (what 38 year old wouldn’t upon learning of his impending death?) there is an air of confidence in his prayer to God. It has been said that “a calm conscience, which is the result of a pious life, gives confidence in prayer.” Only one who has maintained integrity in their walk with God is able to pray confidently to God.
God respected Hezekiah’s tears because they were genuine, born of a lifetime of worship and service to Jehovah.
3. God’s amazing response, verses 4—6
Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city.”
God’s response is full of implications and gives us an insight into the nature of God’s working in the affairs of man. God refers to Himself as “the God of your father David.” The implication here is that God is absolutely committed to the covenant He made with David. God is a God who keeps His promises and never forgets His Word. In fact, God’s response to Hezekiah’s prayer shows us that He was more concerned with continuing the Davidic dynasty, thus keeping the covenant alive, than Hezekiah was. Also, God intimated that He would bless Hezekiah as He had blessed David. The promise of an additional 15 years meant that Hezekiah’s reign would double and the Davidic dynasty continue.
God heard Hezekiah’s prayer and was moved by it, not for Hezekiah’s sake, but for David’s. Has there ever been another human being who has so ingratiated themselves to God than David? His relationship with God must have been truly remarkable!
In responding to the king’s tears, God also promised to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians; God would save a nation because of a righteous king, his heartfelt prayer, and his earnest tears.
4. A startling sign, verses 7, 8
” ‘This is the LORD’s sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.’ ” So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.
Signs were a big part of Isaiah’s ministry. Though Jesus refused to give signs on demand (Matthew 12:39; 16:1—4; etc.), Isaiah did offer signs routinely to confirm God’s Word, especially to those weak in their faith. The account in 2 Kings 20 gives us some details left out in Isaiah—
Hezekiah had asked Isaiah, “What will be the sign that the LORD will heal me and that I will go up to the temple of the LORD on the third day from now?” Isaiah answered, “This is the LORD’s sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised: Shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or shall it go back ten steps?” “It is a simple matter for the shadow to go forward ten steps,” said Hezekiah. “Rather, have it go back ten steps.” (2 Kings 20:8—10)
While Hezekiah did not ask God for a sign, he did ask Isaiah, although it should be noted that when he asked for a sign, he had already been healed (verse 7). In all probability, the sign Hezekiah was asking for was to be a confirmation that Jerusalem would remain safe from the Assyrians, and not a sign involving his health. The sun was about to set on the reign of Hezekiah, so it was entirely appropriate for God’s sign to involve time, in this case, a time-keeping device.
Isaiah offered Hezekiah a choice in the sign: a shadow that would either rise or fall 10 steps (or 10 degrees). The king rightly noted that it would be entirely natural for the shadow to advance as time wore on; a supernatural sign would involve time going backwards! Symbolically, time going backwards was the sign that Hezekiah’s reign would be extended. If God could turn back time, He could extend a life and therefore his reign!
There is no way to explain this miracle scientifically. God healing a terminal king was one thing. God extending his life another 15 years is conceivable. But turning back the hands of time is something thing that seems to go against nature because it affects the entire planet. As far as we know, God lengthening a day happened only one other time, in the case of Joshua (Joshua 10). In the case of this miracle, we need to accept the testimony of God’s Word over the objections of scientists.
5. God and man working together, verses 21, 22
Isaiah had said, “Prepare a poultice of figs and apply it to the boil, and he will recover.” Hezekiah had asked, “What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the LORD?”
The last two verses of Isaiah 38 actually occur in 2 Kings 20 immediately after the promise that Jerusalem would be delivered. The account in 2 Kings does not contain Hezekiah’s psalm of praise, which in Isaiah seems to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Isaiah’s medical prescription was for a “poultice of figs” to be “applied to the boil.” Faith in God is in no way negated by taking medicine. The prayer of faith and taking medicine often go hand-in-hand. Some Christians wrongly think that doing what the doctor says is somehow going to hamper God. In response to this kind of thinking, the motto of the French College of Surgeons provides a balanced philosophy:
I bound up his wounds, God healed him.
What a remarkable man and king Hezekiah must have been! His earnest and simple faith not only preserved his own life and kingdom, but also the Davidic dynasty. But Hezekiah is often referred to as “the man who lived too long,” for his last 15 years were tarnished by pride and arrogance. All too often, godly character acquired after some dreadful trial is weakened with the passage of time. As Ross Price observed,
We must ever be aware of “the moment after!”