Notes on Prayer: Isaiah 38:1-8ff

Isaiah 38:1-8ff

In the previous study of this series, we looked at the prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah 37:15-20 (= 2 Kings 19:15-19); today we will examine another instance of prayer, also involving Hezekiah. This time the situation is that of a grave illness experienced by Hezekiah, one which was life-threatening, putting him in danger of death. Such was a relatively common occurrence in the ancient world, when life-spans were considerably shorter, mortality rates much higher, and medical knowledge regarding disease treatment and prevention quite limited by comparison with what is available to us today. Even so, the current pandemic being experienced widely, if to varying degrees, around the world can serve as a reminder that the modern age is not without its own dangers from life-threatening disease.

Hezekiah’s prayer, in this instance, is for healing—surely one of the most common occasions for prayer to God, both in Hezekiah’s time, and even now today. Here is how the historical tradition is recorded in the opening narrative of Isa 38:1-2 (the parallel version in 2 Kings 20:1-2 is virtually identical):

In those days, YHWH-is-(my)-strength [„izqîy¹hû] became weak (with illness) to (the point of) death, and YHWH-saves [Y®ša±y¹hû], son of Amôƒ, the spokesperson (of YHWH), came to him and said to him, “So says YHWH (to you): ‘Give instruction to your house(hold), for you are dying and will not live.'” And „izqîy¹hû turned his face around to the wall and made a petition to YHWH…

In verse 1, I have translated the YHWH names (= Hezekiah, Isaiah), rather than simply transliterating them in English, as a reminder that they are YHWH sentence/phrase names, and indicate how deeply religious devotion to YHWH was woven into the fabric of Israelite society at the time. The name Hezekiah (WhY`q!z+j!, „izqîy¹hû) means something like “YHWH is (my) strength”, or “YHWH gives strength”, possibly in the wish-form, “(May) YHWH give strength”. Similarly, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y®ša±y¹hû) has the meaning “YHWH is (my) salvation”, or “YHWH saves”, “(May) YHWH save”. These names, in their proper meaning, are significant in terms of the subject and action of the narrative—that is, prayer to YHWH for salvation and strength (i.e. healing) from illness.

The prophet Isaiah—the term ayb!n` literally referring to a spokesperson (for God)—comes to Hezekiah announcing to him that he will die, and will not recover. The implication is that this announcement reflects God’s will and decree regarding the fate of Hezekiah—i.e., this is when his life will end. Faced with the prospect of certain death, Hezekiah makes a plea or petition to YHWH. The verb ll^P*, in the reflexive Hithpael stem, often denotes the specific idea of seeking a judicial ruling (arbitration) on behalf of another person. It came to be used in the sense of the religious devotee seeking arbitration from God Himself (as judge) with regard to a certain situation or set of circumstances (such as a life-threatening illness).

Even though a designated prophet of YHWH had announced that he would not recover, Hezekiah still makes his case to God (the Judge) that he should be healed and allowed to recover. The substance of this petition is given in verse 3:

And he said, “Oh, YHWH, (I would ask that you) remember (the way in) which I have walked about before your face [i.e. before you], in firmness and with a whole heart, and th(at) I have done (what is) good in your eyes!” And „izqîy¹hû wept (with) great weeping.

The opening word aN`a* and the particle an` (attached to the verb rkz) are both particles of entreaty, which are nearly impossible to translate literally in English. I approximate the sense above with “Oh, … (I would ask that you)…”. The basis of the appeal is ethical and religious, rooted in the fundamental idea of faithfulness (to God) and covenant loyalty. According to the ancient concept of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e. covenant bond), especially in terms of a suzerain-vassal agreement, the faithful/loyal vassal is promised protection by the sovereign, which extends to anything that might threaten his life. The king Hezekiah, portraying himself as a loyal vassal of YHWH, asks God to “remember” (vb rk^z`) his years of faithfulness and devotion (to the covenant). This is expressed two ways:

    • The idiom of “walking about” (vb El^h* in the Hithpael reflexive stem), as a reference to a consistent pattern of behavior, over a period of time; the sense of covenant loyalty is further defined by the expressions
      (a) “in firmness” (tm#a#B#), the noun tm#a# connoting a person who is trustworthy and reliable
      (b) “with a whole heart” (<l@v* bl@B=), corresponding to the English idiom “whole-hearted”, though we might also say “with a pure heart”
    • Doing “th(at which is) good” in God’s eyes, more properly implying upright and moral conduct; this alludes primarily to the requirements and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which effectively represent the terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

This appeal to one’s own faithfulness and righteousness may be somewhat disconcerting to us as Christians, as it seems to resemble, at least on the surface, the sort of prayer uttered by the Pharisee in the parable of Luke 18:9-14 (vv. 11-12). There are other instructions in the New Testament warning against relying upon one’s own righteousness for receiving help/salvation from God. A simple appeal for mercy from God, asking for His favor, would seem to be more fitting (from a Christian standpoint). And, indeed, a heartfelt appeal to God for mercy, more akin to the utterance of the toll-collector in the Lukan parable, is perhaps implied by the notice of Hezekiah’s great weeping that accompanied his prayer.

However, from the standpoint of Israelite religion during the kingdom period, it was the covenant framework which defined how the people (and the king, in particular) related to God. And this covenant between Israel and YHWH was very much understood in terms of the religious and cultural conventions of the time, including the form and function of the ancient Near Eastern “binding agreement”, with its strong ethical-religious and judicial aspects. Any appeal to the covenant would, by its nature, have to be expressed in both ethical-religious and judicial terms.

We find many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, including a number of instances in the Psalms which evince the covenant setting, and also a royal background roughly comparable to the context here in Isaiah 38. There are quite a few Psalms in which the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem) makes a judicial appeal to God, affirming and defending his faithfulness, and asking God to act on his behalf.  Often the appeal involves deliverance from one’s enemies/adversaries, which can include rescue from the great enemy of all—Death itself. In several Psalms, it is deliverance from a life-threatening illness that is in view; see, for example, Psalm 6 (discussed in an earlier study), as well as the more recent study on Psalm 30. As it happens, the Isaian version of the narrative regarding Hezekiah’s illness, also includes a psalm of this sort (see below).

Following Hezekiah’s prayer, a new word comes to Isaiah, from YHWH, announcing that the king’s fate is changed:

And there came to be a (new) word of YHWH to Y®ša±y¹hû, saying: “You must go and say to „izqîy¹hû, ‘So says YHWH (the) Mighty (One) of David your father: I have heard your petition, (and) I have seen your tears; (now) look! I will again (put) upon your days [i.e. the days of your life] (an addition of) fifteen years'”. (vv. 4-5)

The heartfelt prayer of Hezekiah, with its implicit covenant appeal, results in a change of the divine decree. God has answered his servant’s prayer. Apart from what this means for the individual, in the wider (historical and literary) context of the narrative the change in fate has significance for the community as well. Hezekiah’s illness (with its threat of death), the focus in chapters 38-39, is set parallel to the terrible danger (and threat of destruction) facing Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion (chapters 36-37). The two are clearly tied together, with the one (Hezekiah’s illness) serving as a symbol for the other (the Assyrian invasion). This is stated precisely, even in the immediate context of our passage, as the prophetic word of YHWH continues in verse 6:

“And, from (the) palm [i.e. hand] of (the) king of Aššûr I will snatch you away, and this city, and I will give (my) protection over this city!”

The righteous/faithful king Hezekiah, who turns to YHWH in prayer and supplication in his time of need, stands for the people as a whole—the faithful remnant of Judah—and the city of Jerusalem. The two go hand in hand—the chosen one (king) and chosen city (Jerusalem)—and both symbolize the faithful ones of God’s people, those who are to be saved and delivered from the danger of death and destruction.

Hezekiah appears to have held a special position in the Isaian tradition, beyond that which we see in the Prophetic/Deuteronomic line of tradition in the book of Kings. There, too, Hezekiah stands as something of a model for the faithful king, loyal to YHWH in the manner/pattern of David (cf. especially the notice in 2 Ki 18:3-7). However, Hezekiah seems to have an even greater significance in the book of Isaiah, especially if, as many commentators believe, it is his reign that is in view in the prophecies of chapters 7-9. At the very least he represents (and symbolizes) the salvation of Judah/Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat, and his recovery from illness clearly is symbolic of the city’s deliverance.

This greater prominence of Hezekiah in the Isaian tradition is also reflected in the psalm of thanksgiving (for deliverance from illness) in Isa 38:9-20. It is not found in the parallel version of 2 Kings, which likely means that it was not part of the original literary work, but was added/included by the author/editor of Isa 36-39. The similarity with Psalms such as 6 and 30, which also deal with the idea of recovery from a life-threatening illness, was noted above. There are a number of themes, images, and points of emphasis in common. I will be discussing this in more detail in the upcoming Saturday Series study (on Isa 38-39).

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