Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 5)

Isaiah 38-39

The second part of the work we have been discussing in the book of Isaiah, chapters 36-39, is comprised of the three tradition-units in chaps. 38-39. As previously noted, these chapters properly occur before chaps. 36-37, when examined in historical terms. It is interesting to consider the possible reasons for the current arrangement. Since the same order is found in both the Isaian and Kings version of this material, it is fair to assume that it was integral to the original work. The current ordering seems more appropriate to the overall literary context (and message) of the book of Kings, compared with that of Isaiah. This would be an argument in favor of the theory that the book of Isaiah borrowed these chapters from the book of Kings, rather than from a separate source; though, in my view, the theory of a separate source is more likely.

When studying chapters 38-39, it is the aspect of historical criticism that is most clearly in view. Such critical study involves careful consideration of the historical background (and historicity) of the text, and how the historical tradition(s) contained therein may have been developed and adapted by the author/editor(s) in the composition of the book (chaps. 2-39) as we have it. There are two main historical traditions in these chapters:

In between, the Isaian version contains a third traditional piece—a thanksgiving psalm for (Hezekiah’s) recovery from illness (38:9-20)—not found in the Kings version. The poem was almost certainly added by the Isaian author/editor, specifically, in composing chapters 36-39. There is clear evidence that the incorporation of the psalm has disrupted the context of the original historical (and prophetic) tradition, which is more accurately represented by the Kings version. In 2 Kings 20:8-11, Hezekiah asks for a sign from the prophet (Isaiah) that he will in fact be healed; this sign involves a shadow that will appear on the “steps of Ahaz”, with Hezekiah being offered a choice of two specific signs. This portion of the tradition has been altered in the Isaian version, displaced by the poem so that Hezekiah’s request for a sign (along with the poultice remedy instructed by Isaiah, v. 21) is out of place, and mentioned as an afterthought, with little significance any longer for the narrative. One can only speculate why the author/editor bothered to include vv. 21-22 after the poem at all; it may simply reflect a fidelty to the tradition, with a concern that it be fully included, however irrelevant it may have seemed to the overall narrative.

Isaiah 38:1-8: Hezekiah’s Illness

On verses 1-8, I have discussed the prayer of Hezekiah (vv. 2-3) in a recent study (in the Monday Notes on Prayer series). We do not know the nature of his illness, only that it was life-threatening, and that the initial message from the prophet was that Hezekiah would not recover. Following the king’s fervent prayer, the prophecy was changed, with YHWH answering the prayer and extending Hezekiah’s lifespan an additional 15 years (vv. 4-5). There was a clear parallel drawn between the personal situation with the king (his life threatening illness) and the threat to the city of Jerusalem (from the Assyrian invasion of Judah). This correspondence was part of the original tradition (and literary work) inherited by the author/editor of Isa 36-39, but it was an aspect he certainly emphasized (v. 6). It reflects a set of themes found elsewhere in the Isaian material—especially the historical/biographical traditions in chapters 7-9, where many commentators believe Hezekiah also plays a key role (cp. the “God-with-us” [Immanuel] references in 7:14; 8:8, 10-11 with the notice in 2 Kings 18:7). The salvation promised for Judah/Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat was symbolized in the person of Hezekiah—the king representing the city and its people in this regard. This certainly is the case in chapters 36-39.

Isaiah 38:9-20: The Thanksgiving Psalm

The psalm in vv. 9-20 is attributed to Hezekiah, but most critical commentators would hold that the poem is an anonymous composition (like, we must assume, many of the canonical Psalms), which has been included (and attributed to the king) because it fit the situational context of the narrative. Traditional-conservative commentators are perhaps less willing to accept such an explanation, as being at odds with a certain view of the inspiration of Scripture. However, the practice of placing (separate/independent) poetic compositions in the mouth of specific characters in the narrative was a common device used in ancient literary and historical works, and one could easily formulate a valid doctrine of inspiration that would allow for it. Nothing in the psalm requires the specific situation of Hezekiah, nor does anything militate against it as the context for the poem. Israelite and Jewish tradition did associate literary production with Hezekiah and his court (e.g., Prov 25:1; Babylonian Talmud Baba batra 15a).

In point of fact, this composition is quite similar to other thanksgiving (tôdâ) Psalms involving recovery from a life-threatening illness (and/or related danger); for a good example, see my recent study on Psalm 30, while one might also note Psalms 6 and 107, and a number of others. A tone of lament can also be found in such poems, particularly in the first portion, when the poet/protagonist decries his condition and prays to God for deliverance. A particular point, reflecting a genuine fear among people of the time, is that, once a person descends to Sheol (the realm of Death and the dead), one no longer has any contact with life, including contact with God (YHWH) himself. A repeated lament, intended as an appeal to YHWH, is that the dead are no longer able to give praise and worship  to God (vv. 18-19); we find the same idea expressed in Ps 6:6; 30:10; 88:11-12; 115:17. At the same time, the dead are unable to “see” YHWH any longer (v. 11); this reflects both a lament for the loss of life, but also alludes to the hope of eternal life (in the presence of God) which is cut off by an untimely death (see Ps 11:7; 17:15; 27:4ff; 88:5, etc).

An important point of interpretation relates to the question of Hezekiah’s repentance. There appears to be an allusion to this in the great weeping (his tears) that accompany his prayer (v. 3); however, more relevant is the idea expressed in vv. 16-17 of the psalm. Unfortunately, it is just at this point that the text of the poem is most difficult (and possibly corrupt). It may be worth briefly examining the text-critical problems in vv. 15-17, which I do in a special note.

The idea that Hezekiah repented, and thus was spared an immediate death, is of considerable significance to the Prophetic history, both in the book of Isaiah and within the Deuteronomic history in the book of Kings. Since Hezekiah’s life-threatening illness was set parallel with the threat of destruction to Jerusalem (from the Assyrian invasion), it would be natural that the response to the threat would effectively be the same in both instances. It was through the people turning to YHWH in renewed faithfulness (and repentance) that the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah would be saved; even then, salvation would not come without terrible suffering. In this regard, Hezekiah’s prayer (and psalm) in chapter 38 is parallel to his prayer to YHWH in 37:15-20 (discussed in the prior studies and a recent note). That prayer, asking God to save the city from destruction is set in tandem with an earlier response by Hezekiah to the Assyrian threat in 37:1-4, in which he called on the people to offer prayer to God for deliverance. The aspect of repentance in that prayer is indicated by the king’s gesture in tearing his clothes and putting on a coarse woven garment (‘sackcloth’), a traditional sign of mourning.

In Jeremiah 26:17-19, a related tradition is recorded, in which Hezekiah responded to a prophecy of Micah (Mic 3:12) that Jerusalem would (soon) be conquered and destroyed. It is indicated that he responded in a similar manner to what is preserved in Isaiah 36-39 par, calling on the people to turn to YHWH in prayer and repentance. The idea expressed in Jeremiah is that such prayer resulted in turning back and forestalling the prophesied destruction, with the warning that it was about to be realized in Jeremiah’s own time. The delaying of Jerusalem’s destruction corresponds to the traditional motif of Hezekiah’s life being extending by a number of years.

Isaiah 39:1-8: The Babylonian delegation

In this final historical tradition, we read of a delegation of officials from Babylon to Jerusalem, to meet with Hezekiah. At its core, this would appear to be an authentic tradition, which took place during the reign of the Babylonian king Marduk-apal-iddina II (= Merodach-Baladan). The visit from the delegation must have occurred sometime before the end of the Babylonian revolt against Assyria (703 B.C.). If the detail in verse 1, relating the visit to the time of Hezekiah’s recovery from illness (see above), is accurate, then the events in chapters 38-39 would have occurred around the same time, probably c. 704-3 B.C. Contrary to the notice in verse 1, which may reflect the stated diplomatic reason for the visit, it is all but certain that, at the historical-political level, the real reason for the delegation was to garner support for Marduk-apal-iddina’s rebellion against Assyria. In this context, the detail of Hezekiah showing them the wealth of his treasury (and armory), should be understood in terms of the financial and military support that the kingdom of Judah could provide.

The Prophetic tradition underlying 39:1-8 (2 Kings 20:12-19), however, has little interest in the realpolitik of the historical situation facing Hezekiah. Instead, through a marvelous bit of literary irony, the scene is used to prophecy the future destruction of Jerusalem, not by the Assyrians, but by the Babylonians–the very people with whom Hezekiah is here shown striking a potential alliance. This prophetic aspect is introduced with the appearance of Isaiah in verse 5, much as he tends to appear (suddenly and abruptly) in all of these traditions of chaps. 36-39. His message (vv. 6-7) is a word of judgment, prophesying the conquest of Jerusalem (and exile of its population). If the city had been saved in Hezekiah’s time, it would yet be conquered and destroyed during the reign of his descendants. This, of course, was fulfilled in 587/6 B.C., and leads to obvious critical questions regarding the historical character of Isaiah’s prophecy—that is, if it represents an authentic oracle by the prophet, or a prophecy “after the fact” (an ex eventu prophecy). For a moderate critical appraisal, allowing for the authenticity of the tradition (and the prophecy), see the discussion in Roberts (pp. 489-90).

A final bit of irony is recorded in verse 8, where Hezekiah apparently misunderstands the prophecy, treating it as a positive message: “Good (is the) spoken (word) of YHWH which He has spoken”. However, this must, I think, be read in the context of chapter 38 (see above), where the salvation of Jerusalem is defined in terms of the 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life. In this narrative, Hezekiah symbolizes the salvation of Judah/Jerusalem—a remnant of the kingdom that will survive the Assyrian crisis. This helps to explain the words uttered by Hezekiah (to himself?) that close the episode: “For there shall be peace [i.e. safety/security] and firmness in my days”. In other words, this time of peace and salvation is tied to the reign of Hezekiah (note again the Immanuel [“God-with-us”] passages in chaps. 7-9, cf. above). At the same time, the words contain a double meaning, since it clearly implies that after Hezekiah’s days, there may no longer be peace and security. To the author and audience of the book of Isaiah in the 6th century, the fulfillment of the prophecy would have been fully, and painfully, understood.

This brings us to the question of the order of the episodes in chaps. 36-39. Why were chaps. 38-39 placed after 36-37, when the events recorded in them clearly took place at least two years earlier? The best explanation was that it was important to use the tradition in 39:1-8 as a foreshadowing of future events, and this worked most effectively by having it conclude the narrative. This is very much to the purpose of the narrative in the book of Kings, which extends all the way to the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the Babylonian exile marks the culmination and climactic point of the narrative. Such an emphasis, however, does not seem to fit the overall message and thrust of Isaiah 2-39, which has a central theme the promise of salvation for Judah and Jerusalem. This is so even if we consider the possibility the Isaian oracles may have been adapted and reinterpreted by authors/editors in the 6th century. Even in the context of the Babylonian exile, the Isaian message of salvation is preserved, expressed in terms of restoration (and return from exile), much as it is in the so-called Deutero-Isaian poems of chapters 40-55ff. Given this outlook, it would have made more sense, it seems, to close the work (both chaps. 36-39 and the wider work of chaps. 2-39) with the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat.

If the Isaian author/editor inherited the material from a pre-existing source (as seems likely), it may be that he simply did not feel at liberty to alter the existing order. Another possibility may be considered, if the “Deutero-Isaian” sections (some or all of them) were included as part of the book at around the same time as chapters 36-39. In such a scenario, the prophecy of the exile in 39:6-8 may have been deemed an appropriate launching point for the majestic oracles of restoration that follow in chapters 40ff. We are doubtless inclined to read the passage in this light, in the context of the complete book of Isaiah as we have it. Also to be noted is the way that oracles of salvation and judgment alternate throughout the Isaian material in chapters 2-39. If a word of warning follows a message of the hope for salvation, as it often does in the book, might not that serve as a suitable conclusion to the book, in its own right? It is interesting to speculate.

Next week, the Saturday Series studies will shift course, returning to the subject of New Testament criticism. I will be selecting a number of passages to illustrate how criticism relates to theology and key points of doctrine. The focus each week will be narrower, often looking at a single verse, but, at the same time, I hope to take you even deeper into a critical study of the text.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).


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