9. The Deliverance of Judah’s King (Isaiah 38:1-22)
1. The Account (38:1-8)
This chapter records another lesson on faith for believers of all times. It is faith in the power of the LORD to do what seems to be the impossible. In the sickness of death, King Hezekiah prayed and had his life extended by fifteen years (1-7). For a sign of that promise, the sun went back ten degrees on the sun dial (8). In response to this gracious provision of extended life, Hezekiah recorded his song of thanksgiving for that answer to prayer (9-20). The last two verses record what Hezekiah had done for the healing, and what he had asked as a sign (21, 22). Any exposition of the song will have to provide the historic background for the situation.
2. The Song of Thanksgiving (38:9-20)
To capture the tone of the song and get the proper interpretation of the lines, the literary genre must be established. This is a classic declarative praise song, a todah60_ftn1 song that would be offered in the Sanctuary, accompanied by the giving of the peace offering. So it is jubilation! It is a praise in celebration of life, thanks to divine intervention. The point can then be rather readily captured by anyone who has had health restored, especially if dramatically from an apparent life-threatening situation. Of course, people who have had health restored from lesser ailments can also appreciate the blessing of life. But this is the tone that must be caught in the exposition of the passage.
In a typical declarative praise psalm the first part will include a looking back to the problem and the prayer. Unfortunately, many translations and a number of expositions have chosen to use the English present tense, giving the impression he is still praying. But it is a praise psalm; this is simply reporting the need when he prayed. Therefore, it should not be the main part of the message, nor should it make a separate point. It lays the foundation for the praise.
The parts of the passage according to the declarative psalm structure are as follows: the report of the lament (10-12), the report of the prayer at that time (13-14), the report of the deliverance (15-16), and the didactic section with the praise proper (17-20). The first part is a review of what happened (10-16); the last part is the praise (17-20).
The expositional arrangement could group these in a number of ways, just so the point of each section is maintained. I would put the first two sections together as the report of the trouble (10-14), and then as sub-points have the lament and the prayer. My second section would be the report of the deliverance (15-16). The third section is the climax, the praise with the lesson (17-20).
The application from a praise psalm is pretty straightforward. People should do what he is doing, praising God publicly, individually, for the additional life given to them. But note that in a praise psalm there are always specific reasons for praise and certain lessons learned. Here there are two major things: God restores people to life to serve Him further, and God lets people go through anguish for their welfare—to improve. There is always the praise for the healing, but there will certainly also be the questions as to why God allowed this to happen. The welfare of the sufferer concerns spiritual benefits, to be sure; and that means that the faith of him and others will be strengthened through the entire process. It is sad that in order for people to grow spiritually God often has to put them in positions of desperate dependency on Him. Usually when they have things going their way the spiritual life becomes less urgent.
A secondary application would be to encourage others who are ill and suffering, or even at death’s door, to pray for life. That is the purpose of a testimony of praise.
(Part One: The Report of the Deliverance)
I. Faced with the prospect of possible death, believers can pray to God for help (38:10-14).
A. Believers may face the treat of pre-mature death (10-12).
10 I said, “In the prime61 of my life
must I go through the gates of death,62
and be deprived63 of the rest of my years?”
Beginning with verse 10 the king is recalling what he thought when he learned that he might die pre-maturely. This is looking back—he is no longer in danger for this is a praise psalm!
There is no clear indication that these lines should be questions, but they certainly could be, and would make very good sense that way as he reasoned through what was happening, perhaps expressing his amazement that he might die. The point is that this is not the death of someone in a ripe old age—it was at the noon time of his life, before he lived out his whole course.
11 I said, “I will not again see the LORD,64
the LORD, in the land of the living;65
no longer will I look on mankind,
or be with those who now dwell in this world.
The Hebrews were convinced that they should live and worship God in this life as long as they could. For them to die and go to the next world was not a wonderful thought, nor a solution to anything. Death was an enemy that God could and should conquer. I take it that the expression “see the LORD” refers to worship in the Sanctuary where they would see evidence of the LORD’s favor through the praises of Israel, and so “LORD” would be a metonymy of cause (compare Psalm 63 as well as other passages on this). Certainly going to heaven would be perfection and glory; but edifying praise, prayers for intervention, and active participation in God’s spiritual program only work in this life while we have life. Hezekiah did not want this experience to end early.
12 My dwelling66 has been removed and carried away from me
like a shepherd’s tent.
Like a weaver I have rolled up my life,67
and He has cut me off from the loom;
day and night you make an end of me.”68
This verse uses two similes to make the point. The habitation or dwelling is probably his life, or more specifically his body (so possibly a metonymy itself); like a tent it was being folded up and taken away—you have to imagine here bedouin tents and how easily they are removed. The other image is that of the weaver; Hezekiah’s life, under this figure, was rolled up and about to be cut off—he had spun his last work. God was bringing him to an early and sudden death.
B. Believers may pray for divine healing (13, 14).
In these two verses Hezekiah recalls how he prayed for God to intervene and spare his life.
13 I waited patiently69 until morning
but like a lion He broke all my bones;
day and night You make an end of me.
This verse tells how Hezekiah waited for the LORD to restore him. “Waited patiently” could very well be a metonymy of adjunct since it accompanies his praying. The word “morning” is clearly a hypocatastasis, comparing the recovery to full health to the morning. But it did not come quickly because the LORD was apparently “destroying” him. “Bones” is a metonymy of subject, meaning the whole person encased in the boney framework. “Lion” is of course another simile. And the expression of breaking all the bones may be an extension of that simile, but it is certainly hyperbolic as well.
14 I cried70 like a swift or a thrush
I moaned71 like a morning dove;
My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens,
“I am troubled72; O LORD, come to my aid.”
Here we have the praying and the prayer that occurred while he was waiting on the LORD. His cries and moans are compared to birds (similes), suggesting that he was losing his strength and resolve and could only moan softly like an injured dove. To “look on the heavens” probably is metonymical for his prayer. When he prayed he grew tired and exhausted because of his sickness. The “eyes” are singled out (synecdoche) for the whole body because they easily indicate failing health and vigor, both to himself (he cannot see, or cannot keep his eyes open) and to others (who see in his eyes that he is near death).
His prayer is for God to come to his aid. The Hebrew text here is li ‘orbeni ( lee or-bay-nee), “be my surety.” He wants God to pledge to him, or perhaps, to be his pledge, his assurance, his surety of life. The word then is also a metonymy (of cause) since he wants God to assure him of life and health.
II. God delights in answering the fervent prayers of the righteous (38:15, 16)
A. The appeal must come from the righteous (15).
Verse 15 tells of the answer to his prayer; it could easily go with the preceding section as part of the prayer, but I have put it here as part of the discussion of the answer to the prayer because it seems to be a transition and not part of the request. Moreover, verse 16, the report of the deliverance, is tied strongly to this verse.
15 What can I say? He has both spoken to me
and He Himself has done this.
I will walk humbly73 all my years
because of the anguish74 of my soul.
I have used the term “righteous” in my point to capture the spirit of this verse and make a link to the New Testament’s affirmation of the prayer of the righteous. God is the one who can deliver Hezekiah; but God is the one who has done this to him. How can that be explained? Probably not to our satisfaction. One can only conclude that God has a plan for our lives that can put us through all of this, so that we might cry to Him for healing. Therefore, faced with such power over our lives, and seeing no one else we can turn to for help, we like this king must “walk softly” before Him. This hypocatastasis would refer to a careful life of obedience—making sure that we do not make the wrong step. This idea includes faith in the LORD and obedience to His Word and living so as to be pleasing to Him. God is willing to restore to health someone who will be obedient to Him; someone who would return to a life of self-indulgence and unrighteousness has no appeal at all.
B. God delights in saving life (16).
16 O Lord, by such things men live,
and my spirit finds life in them too.
You restored me to life
and let me live.
Here is the clear report that the prayer was answered. This sixteenth verse develops a principle from what the LORD has done—by this men live. Those who believe in the LORD and pray to Him, living a life of cautious obedience—they are blessed by God with life.75 And this is why God blessed Hezekiah—his spirit revived when he knew what God was doing to him, and what God wanted to develop in him.
So from this comes the great proclamation of praise in 16b: “You restored me to health (tahlimeni [takh-lee-may-nee] from halam [khah-lam]), you let me live (wehahayeni [veh-ha-kha-yey-nee ] from hayah [khah-yah] ). I would spend some time on these words, defining them and illustrating them, because this is the first praise report. It means, of course, that God has power over our health, our life, and our death. Psalm 116 affirms, “Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of His saints”—or, nobody dies without God’s “say-so.”
(Part Two: The Actual Praise for the Deliverance)
III. God answers prayer and restores health in order that His people might praise Him forever (38:17-20).
A. Praise is edifying (17).
17 Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered anguish;
in Your love you kept me from the pit of destruction;76
You have put all my sins behind your back.
All biblical praise is meant to teach something as a means of explaining a difficulty or encouraging faith. Here the king acknowledges that this bitter anguish was for his benefit (Hebrew lesalom [leh-shah-loam]), his welfare, or wholeness, or completeness—his health and well-being. There is simply no other way to develop this. Jesus Christ, even though he was a son, the Book of Hebrews tells us, learned obedience through the things that He suffered. To learn from suffering is critical; it is not sufficient merely to recover or be healed.
In the same verse the king explains that God kept him from destruction by His love and did not let his sins condemn him. Here is praise for the attribute of faithful love that was the cause of the deliverance, and that did not use his sins as reason to destroy him.77 Most praises will focus on one attribute of God—this is it.
So we learn from this and other Scripture that God loves His people and will preserve them from destruction; but in the process He may put them through bitter anguish so that they might have a stronger faith, greater obedience (tread softly) and better praise.
B. Praise is the declaration of God’s faithfulness (18).
18 For the grave cannot praise you,78
death cannot sing your praise;79
those who go down to the pit
cannot hope for your faithfulness.
Here we have a teaching that is common to the psalms. The grave80 cannot praise—he is no good to God if he dies and goes to the grave because he could not then tell how God saved him from the grave. Only the living can praise God’s faithfulness.81 Hezekiah’s experience of God’s faithfulness was that God mercifully restored to life His covenant believer. We will be able to praise God in heaven throughout eternity; but only in this life can we praise God by saying, “He kept me alive to serve more in this life.”
C. Praise is to be unending (19, 20).
19 The living, the living—they praise You,
as I am doing today;
fathers tell their children about your faithfulness.
20 The LORD saves me82
and we will sing with stringed instruments
all the days of our lives in the temple of the LORD.
The praise of Hezekiah will encourage others to pray when they are sick, so that the living will rejoice and praise in the way that God grants full life. The theme of this praise should be very clear by these last verses—God restored the king to life. Therefore, today and throughout all his life, he says, he will praise the LORD—not just once for the answer to the prayer. Every day that he has is a gift from God, and he will declare that truth.
The basic lesson from the point of the psalm is rather clear: If God restores us to life—or even preserves our lives from danger—unending praise in the Sanctuary must come from us to Him. We know this; we simply do not do it. We are eager and diligent to pray, because we are in a panic and desperate. But how soon we forget the reason that God delivers us from illness and death. He expects our public praise.
And then there is a parallel in the spiritual world. By God’s love and grace we have been given new life in Christ—salvation. So with our whole lives all the time we should be praising God in public. After all, He redeemed us that we might be trophies of His grace in this world.
Ackroyd, P. R. “An Interpretation of the Babylonian Exile: A Study of 2 Kings 20, Isaiah 38-39.” Scottish Journal of Theology 27 (1974):329-352.
Hurwitz, Marshall S. “The Septuagint of Isaiah 36-39 in Relation to that of 1-35, 40-66.” HUCA 28 (1957):22-38.
60 The Hebrew term todah is a noun from yadah, meaning "acknowledgment, praise." The verbal idea of "acknowledge" works best because the word can be used for praise or confess sin. Although translated "thanksgiving" in English versions, there is a great difference between our modern "thanks" and Hebrew praise.
61 "Prime" is literally "noontide"; this would be hypocatastasis. "Life" is literally "days"--a synecdoche.
62 “The verb is puqqadti, literally "robbed" of the rest of life. This too would be an implied comparison, hypocatastasis to stress the sudden loss he was anticipating.
63 The verb is puqqadti, literally "robbed" of the rest of life. This too would be an implied comparison, hypocatastasis to stress the sudden loss he was anticipating.
64 Hebrew is Yah, the abbreviated form, common in poetry.
65 The expression be'eres hahayyim (beh-e-rets ha-khay-yim) is a common one for this world of living people. The genitive would be attributive--a land characterized by living people.
66 The Hebrew has dori, normally "my generation"; but it means his time on earth.
67 "Life" in Hebrew is usually in the plural, as here: hayyay (khay-yay), "my life[s]." But the plural indicates all the complexity of a lifetime, all the parts--it is a full expression of all that life is.
68 There is irony in the verb "you make an end of me." The Hebrew is taslimeni (tash-lee-may-nee), from salam (shah-lam), the verbal root of "peace, welfare, wholeness." To lie in peace is an expression for death; but the Hebrew idea of peace would normally be otherwise.
69 Literally the Hebrew form, siwwiti (from siwwah [siv-vah] ) means "I quieted myself." The verb suggests that the natural instinct was to cry out and complain, but he forced himself to wait patiently on the LORD.
70 The Hebrew is emphatic, 'asapsep, literally "I chattered." The verb is suggested to be onomatopoeic.
71 Another onomatopoeic word, hagah (here: 'ehgeh) means to mumble under the breath. It also can be used for "meditate."
72 The verb is `asaq (ah-shak), "to be oppressed, crushed." It is much stronger than "troubled."
73 The verb means "walk softly" ('eddaddeh).
74 "Anguish" is fine; mar (from marar) literally means "bitterness"--‘al mar napsi (al mar naph-she).
75 The verb hayah and its related forms is found in this one verse three times. Since the word occurs several other places in the psalm, this would be the major theological theme to look at. Besides, the lament is its whole antithesis--death. A word study of hayah or hay would not change the definition, but would discover that there is a quality of life involved, not merely surviving.
76 The text has missahat beli (mish-sha-khat beh-lee), "from the pit of destruction." The expression indicates the place of destruction where one is reduced to nothing. Therefore, we have a metonymy of effect here for the grave or death.
77 "Putting sins behind the back" is a bold anthropomorphism to stress that they were kept out of sight--did not get in the way of God's love for him.
78 Here is the verb that is fitting for this type of psalm, todekka, from yadah in the imperfect with a pronominal suffix.
79 The parallel verb is the well-known halal, yehalelekka (yeh-ha-leh-lek-kah). The root word means to be shining, brilliant; and so the verb to praise has the idea of glowing with a report, enthusiastic and excited telling about what was enjoyed.
80 The figure is metonymy of subject--the dead in the grave.
81 The word is ’emet, "truth"; but it means reliability as well. It is related to the verbal root ’aman. The figure here would be metonymy of cause--the cause is His faithfulness, the effect is that He delivered Hezekiah.
82 The Hebrew form is the infinitive with the preposition: le hosi‘eni (leh-ho-she-ey-nee), meaning "to save me." The construction implies something is left out. It may indicate: "The LORD [decided] to save me."