9 A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness:
10 I said, In the middle of my days
I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
for the rest of my years.
11 I said, I shall not see the Lord,
the Lord in the land of the living;
I shall look on man no more
among the inhabitants of the world.
12 My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
13 I calmed myself until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
from day to night you bring me to an end.
14 Like a swallow or a crane I chirp;
I moan like a dove.
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety!
15 What shall I say? For he has spoken to me,
and he himself has done it.
I walk slowly all my years
because of the bitterness of my soul.
16 O Lord, by these things men live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh restore me to health and make me live!
17 Behold, it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
18 For Sheol does not thank you;
death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope
for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, he thanks you,
as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children
20 The Lord will save me,
and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
at the house of the Lord.
21 Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a cake of figs and apply it to the boil, that he may recover.” 22 Hezekiah also had said, “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?” – Isaiah 38:9-21 ESV
Hezekiah had been severely ill, and the prophet Isaiah had given him the divine prognosis that his illness would end in death. In his despair, Hezekiah prayed to God and received the news that he would be healed and his life would be extended an additional 15 years. The book of 2 Kings provides additional details concerning Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery.
Then Isaiah said, “Make an ointment from figs.” So Hezekiah’s servants spread the ointment over the boil, and Hezekiah recovered! – 2 Kings 20:7 NLT
Sometime after these events, Hezekiah composed a poem commemorating the occasion and recording the diverse range of emotions he had experienced.
Hezekiah had been rocked by the news of his pending death. It was unexpected and had caught him completely by surprise. Like anyone facing the prospect of an untimely death, Hezekiah thought about all those he would leave behind.
“Never again will I see the Lord God
while still in the land of the living.
Never again will I see my friends
or be with those who live in this world.” – Isaiah 38:11 NLT
He couldn’t help but feel that he was being robbed of life, and denied the joy of experiencing all the pleasures that come to the living. Like all men, he had a difficult time imagining what existence beyond death might look like. He refers to his soul being confined to Sheol, the abode of the dead. The ancient Jews did not have a well-developed understanding of the afterlife. Their concept of the blessings of God was closely tied to life on this side of death, not beyond it. Which led Hezekiah to wonder whether his premature death was the result of his own sin. He couldn’t help but consider that he had somehow displeased God and his terminal illness was a form of divine punishment. For the Jews, disease was viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure. The apostle John records a scene from the life of Jesus that reflects this common misperception.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” – John 9:1-2 NLT
The disciples were reflecting the commonly held view that blindness was a curse, not a blessing. So, this man or his parents must have done something that angered God and brought about his blindness.
Hezekiah shared this mindset and saw his illness as a curse from God. Which led Hezekiah to pray incessantly, his voice sounding like the coos of a dove as he moaned out his pleas for God’s mercy. And yet, he somehow believed that his calls for healing would be ineffectual.
“But what could I say?
For he himself sent this sickness.
Now I will walk humbly throughout my years
because of this anguish I have felt.” – Isaiah 38:15 NLT
His illness was God’s doing, and there was nothing he could do about it. But his poem takes a dramatic turn at this point. Suddenly, Hezekiah begins to reflect his gratefulness for the dark night of the soul he experienced.
“Lord, your discipline is good,
for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
and allow me to live!
Yes, this anguish was good for me,
for you have rescued me from death
and forgiven all my sins.” – Isaiah 38:15-17 NLT
God provided healing and the assurance that his life would be extended another 15 years. Hezekiah’s sorrow was immediately replaced with joy. His despair was replaced with delight in God’s mercy and unmerited favor. God was allowing him to live and, not only that, forgiving his sins in the process. Because Hezekiah believed his illness was the result of sin, his healing could only have happened if God forgave his sin.
You can sense Hezekiah’s rather earth-bound and limited view of life and the afterlife. From his human perspective, life was essential if one were going to praise God.
“For the dead cannot praise you;
they cannot raise their voices in praise.
Those who go down to the grave
can no longer hope in your faithfulness.” – Isaiah 38:18 NLT
He shared the commonly-held view that this life was where God’s blessings were to be enjoyed and where our devotion to God was to be displayed. You see this mindset reflected in the psalms.
The heavens belong to the Lord,
but he has given the earth to all humanity.
The dead cannot sing praises to the Lord,
for they have gone into the silence of the grave. – Psalm 115:16-17 NLT
Even King David had shared this view of life and death.
Return, O Lord, and rescue me.
Save me because of your unfailing love.
For the dead do not remember you.
Who can praise you from the grave? – Psalm 6:4-5 NLT
From Hezekiah’s perspective, long life provided an opportunity to praise God. “Only the living can praise you as I do today” (Isaiah 38:19 NLT). And he intended to take advantage of every single moment God was going to give him on this earth.
“I will sing his praises with instruments
every day of my life
in the Temple of the Lord.” – Isaiah 38:20 NLT
Hezekiah’s desire to spend his remaining years praising God is commendable. His ecstatic reaction to the news of his healing is natural and normal. He had been facing certain death and, suddenly, he had been given a new lease on life. In the excitement of the moment, Hezekiah expressed his desire to repay God by dedicating his life to the praise and glory of God. And again, this reaction by Hezekiah is commendable, but it raises some unavoidable questions: Are we only willing to praise God when He gives us the desires of our heart? Had God not chosen to heal Hezekiah, would the king have praised the Almighty anyway? Would he have accepted the will of God even when it seemed to contradict his own human understanding of what it means to be blessed by God?
The prophet Habakkuk provides us with a much more balanced illustration of how we, as humans, should understand and respond to the seeming incongruities of life.
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! – Habakkuk 3:17-18 NLT
The apostle Paul shared this same viewpoint, declaring to the believers in Rome that, even in the face of trials and troubles, we have ample reason to praise God.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. – Roman 5:3-5 NLT
In Hezekiah, we have reflected a similar but significantly different sentiment.
Lord, your discipline is good,
for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
and allow me to live! – Isaiah 38:16 NLT
The question is whether we, as those who believe in the sovereignty of God, are willing to accept both the good and the bad of life as coming through His hands. It was right for Hezekiah to rejoice in God’s healing. It was appropriate for him to respond with praise and adoration at his miraculous restoration by God. But the fact is, God does not always heal. Things do not always turn out for the better. Those with terminal illnesses do not always receive an additional 15-years of life. But those facts do not alter the goodness of God. They do not do anything to diminish the divine sovereignty of God. In our greatest moments of darkness and despair, our attitude should be that of Job who, when facing the loss of all that he had, was able to say:
“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT
Praising God in the good times is easy. Praising Him the difficult times requires faith and a strong belief that His will is always right and His plan, while not always clear to us, has our best interest in mind.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.