Isaiah 36:1 - 40:8
After the lovely picture of blessedness on earth in the millennial age, presented to us in chapter 35, there is a break in the prophecy. The four chapters, 36-39, give us details of history in Hezekiah's reign, which are recounted also in 2 Kings, chapters 18-20, and again more briefly in 2 Chronicles 32.
Remembering that we have no needless repetitions in Scripture, we may ask why these chapters should be inserted here? The answer, we think, is twofold.
First, the personal piety of Hezekiah is recorded, so different from the state of the nation at large, as depicted in the earlier chapters, and particularly chapter 1; and then how God answered his faith in the destruction of the Assyrian. Second, though his faith and dependence on God was so genuine, and his prayer for recovery so strikingly answered, these very mercies led to his failure in the matter of the Babylonian envoys which is recorded. This indicated that the more immediate judgments already pronounced could not be delayed.
Isaiah 36 records in detail the arguments by which the herald of the king of Assyria tried to persuade the people of Jerusalem to an immediate surrender, and we must remember that about eight years previously Samaria had fallen before the Assyrian power, and later the defended cities of Judah had also fallen. So humanly speaking the position of Jerusalem was hopeless.
Rabshakeh's words were very specious. He knew the weakness of Egypt, in which the Jews were inclined to trust, as verse 6 shows; and as to which the people had already been warned by Isaiah. He completely mistook, however, Hezekiah's action in destroying the high places, for this, instead of being an offence against the Lord, was entirely in obedience to His word in Deuteronomy 12: 1-6. So many previous kings, even the good ones, had overlooked this commandment of the Lord, but Hezekiah had been obedient and faithful.
Moreover, Rabshakeh falsely asserted that the Lord had told the Assyrian king to destroy Jerusalem, and then he appealed against Hezekiah to the citizens within hearing, for he evidently had a shrewd knowledge of their idolatrous tendencies, so different to their King. Many of them were secretly trusting in false gods and not in the Lord, so the reminder of the fact, that the gods of many other cities had failed to deliver, was calculated to have weight in their minds. Still Hezekiah's command to the men to keep silence prevailed, and they answered him not a word.
Eliakim, of whom we read in Isaiah 22, with others brought news of all this to Hezekiah, and his reaction to it is found in the first five verses of Isaiah 37, God was first in his thoughts, for covered with sackcloth, indicating sorrow and humiliation, he "went into the house of the Lord."
Then, in the second place, he turned to the prophet, through whom God had been speaking, confessing the low estate of himself and his people. He spoke of them as "the remnant that is left." He recognized the unity of all Israel. Now that the ten tribes had been deported, he did not fall into the snare of assuming that the two, over whom he was king, were more than a "remnant," left by the mercy of God. Much of the professing church today has been by the adversary deported from their true place and portion, so let any who have escaped this, and remain in any degree true to their original calling, never forget they have no other status than a remnant of the whole. They are not reconstituted as a separate entity.
Isaiah's response was one of assurance. God would deal with Sennacherib, firstly by causing him to hear a report as to the king of Ethiopia, lastly by death in his own land, and in between by the destruction of his boasted and apparently invincible army, of which we read at the end of the chapter.
Though not for the moment attacking Jerusalem, Sennacherib sent a further boastful message to Hezekiah - verses 10-13 - and Hezekiah's response follows. Instead of replying to man, he turned to God, spreading the letter before Him. In his prayer he acknowledged the military might of the Assyrian king, yet asked for deliverance on the ground that the Assyrian had sent "to reproach the living God."
This brought forth God's immediate answer through Isaiah, accepting the Assyrian challenge, which was not only reproachful but blasphemous also. The Assyrian would become a laughing-stock to Jerusalem. His earlier successes against other cities had been ordained of God; now turning against God, he would be utterly crushed, and the remnant of Judah should be delivered for the time being. The city should be spared for the Lord's own sake, as well as for David's sake.
The chapter closes with a brief record of the drastic smiting of the Assyrian army. No record of this has been found among the dug-up remains of Assyrian libraries and monuments, we understand; and no wonder! These ancient monarchs, no more desired to keep their defeats and abasements in the memory of their public, than the men of today. Sennacherib himself came to an ignominious end, as the last verse of our chapter declares.
And then, "In those days," just when Hezekiah had been so marvellously lifted up by this Divinely-wrought deliverance, he was smitten with an illness that brought him face to face with death. Through Isaiah, who just before had given him the message of deliverance for his city and people, he was told to prepare for his end. Unlike Asa, one of his predecessors, who when diseased "sought not to the Lord, but to the physicians," he did go straight to the Lord and with tears besought for his life. He was heard and 15 further years were granted to him.
He asked for a sign that he should recover, as the last verse of the chapter tells us, and a remarkable sign was given. That the shadow on the sun-dial should go ten degrees backward was entirely contrary to nature, but it was a sign befitting the fact that God was about to reverse Hezekiah's sickness, so that contrary to the nature of his disease, it should end in life and not death. A plaister of figs does not usually cure a virulently septic boil, but it did in this case as an act of God.
Unbelievers may of course refuse this story of the sun-dial incident, just as they do the incident of the long day, recorded in Joshua 10: 13, when the apparent course of the sun was arrested. It is worthy of note that in Joshua the sun, "hasted not to go down about a whole day." The ten degrees of Hezekiah's time may have completed a whole day. He who established the course of the solar system can accelerate or retard it, if it pleases Him so to do.
The Apostle Paul has told us, in Romans 5: 3-5, what excellent results in the hearts and lives of saints are produced by tribulation, since it leads to the in-shining of the love of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. A faint foreshadowing of this we find in the writing of Hezekiah after he was recovered - which writing is preserved for us in verses 10-20,
It begins on notes of great mournfulness, occupying five verses, but it ends on songs which are to fill the rest of his life. The change of tone begins when he recognized the affliction as coming from the hand of God. Moreover he discovered, as verse 16 shows, that what threatened death to his body brought life to his spirit, which is more important than the body.
Verse 17 too is full of instruction. It expresses what unconverted folk have sometimes found, as well as saints, when deeply tried or near to death. Hezekiah did not then concern himself with "my kingdom," or "my wealth," but "my soul." He also become conscious of "my sins," and that there was a "pit of corruption," into which his sins threatened to cast his soul. This must have been a very acute spiritual experience for him; and so it is equally for us.
But on the other hand he made some very joyous: discoveries. First, he discovered that on God's part there was "love to my soul," though he could not have known that with the fulness that has only been revealed in Christ. Yet it led to the further discovery that God had dealt with his sins, though he could not have known that with the finality that the Gospel brings to us. In his day there was "the remission [i.e. passing over] of sins that are past" (Rom. 3: 25); that is, the sins of saints who lived before full atonement was made by Christ on the cross. Still he knew that God had cast all his sins behind His back; and since God does not move in circles but rather straight forward through the eternal ages, what He casts behind His back is there for ever, and not as He said to Ephraim in Hosea 7: 2, "before My face."
Consequently he had the happy assurance that his soul was delivered from the doom that threatened it. The pit of corruption he would never see. What a wonderful experience was brought to Hezekiah by this violent sickness! Since his day many a saint has found a period of sickness, or of loss in other ways, to be an occasion of rich spiritual gain; many a sinner has been laid low to be broken in spirit and humbled for eternal blessing.
But, before we leave this chapter, there is another sobering reflection; for 2 Kings 21: 1 reveals that his son Manasseh, who succeeded him, was only 12 years old when he began to reign; that is, he was born after Hezekiah's recovery, as the result of his added 15 years of life. And this Manasseh reigned for 55 years and did such evil in and with the nation that the Babylonian captivity had to be inflicted upon them, as is shown so plainly in 2 Kings 21: 10-16. Let us learn from this that we may earnestly beseech God for something that we regard as a favour, and it may be granted us, and yet we may have subsequently to discover that the "favour" we demanded carried with it consequences that were by no means favourable.
And this reflection is deepened when we read Isaiah 39. The Assyrian having been smitten of God, the revived city of Babylon began to lift up its head, though more than a century had to pass before it became the predominant power. Hezekiah had been magnified in the sight of surrounding peoples by the miraculous destruction of the Assyrian army, and also by his own miraculous recovery; hence the complimentary embassage from Merodach-baladan, which pleased him much and led to a display of his pride.
We are told quite definitely in 2 Chronicles 32: 25, 26, and 31, that God's kind deliverances led to the heart of Hezekiah being lifted up with pride, and that God permitted the testing of these men from Babylon to "try him," and to "know all that was in his heart." The Babylonians, whether they knew it or not, set a trap, and into it he fell, displaying for his own glory all that God had permitted him to acquire. Hence the solemn message Isaiah had to bring him, of coming judgment from Babylon on his sons and people.
Nor does the last verse of our chapter present Hezekiah to us in a very favourable light. He evidently cared much more for his own personal success and comfort than for the welfare of his posterity or of his nation. He had been favoured of God, but he passes from our view too much wrapped up in his own blessings, too little concerned for others on whom the judgment was to fall.
Thus these four historical chapters, whilst recording God's merciful intervention both for the nation and for Hezekiah personally, show us quite plainly that there was nothing in the people nor in the best of their kings that would avert the more immediate judgment on Jerusalem, that in the earlier chapters Isaiah had foretold.
We might therefore have expected that chapter 40 would commence on a mournful note, calling for misery and tears rather than comfort, But no, "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God;" and that in view of the main theme, which is developed in the remaining chapters. In the earlier portion - Isaiah 1-35 - the main theme has been the sinful state of both Israel and the surrounding nations, and God's judgments upon them all, though relieved by happy references to Messiah's kingdom and glory, (as in Isa. 9, Isa. 11, Isa. 28, Isa. 32). Now, though God's controversy with Israel still continues, both as to their idolatry and their rejection of their Messiah, it is His advent, both in suffering and in glory, that is the main theme.
Comfort, then, is now pronounced and offered to God's people and, as to the immediate context, it is based upon the declaration in verse 2. It is not that their iniquity is condoned or made light of but rather that its "double," or appropriate punishment, has been exacted, and thus it has been pardoned, and the time of "warfare," or suffering, is over. The verse does not state how this "double" from the Lord's hand has been received.
The explanation of it lies in the subsequent chapters. As to the government of God, operating in this world, they receive it to the full in heavy chastisement, as indicated in Isaiah 57, 58 and 59. As to the more serious matter of God's eternal judgment on sin, they receive it in the vicarious sufferings of their Messiah and Saviour, whom once they rejected. This we see in Isaiah 53, where we find them saying prophetically, "The chastisement of our peace was upon Him," since "The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."
So verse 3 presents us with that which the Evangelist Mark has declared to be, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God:" - the mission of John the Baptist. The prophecy here is quite unmistakable for John himself claimed to be "the voice;" as recorded in John 1: 23. Equally unmistakable is the true greatness and glory of the One that he announced, for it was "Jehovah," and "our God" for whom he prepared the way.
The language of verse 4 is figurative but the meaning is plain, and in keeping with the words of the virgin Mary, recorded in Luke 1: 52. John's baptism was one of repentance, and that brings all men down to a common level of lowliness and self-judgment. The Pharisees saw this clearly enough and it was the reason why they, being puffed up with pride, "rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him" (Luke 7: 30).
But though the allusion to John is so plain, verse 5 carries us on to what will be fulfilled at the second coming of Christ. The glory of the Lord was indeed revealed at His first coming, and it proved to be "the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father" (John 1: 14). But in the same verse we read, "We beheld His glory," and the context of these words shows that the mass of the people did not behold it. The disciples were the exception to the rule. Not until His second advent comes to pass will "all flesh" see it. Revelation 1: 7, declares the publicity of His second advent.
So the prophecy here, as is usual in the Old Testament, has both advents in view. The same feature meets us in chapter 61: 2, for, when the Lord Jesus read this in the synagogue at Nazareth, He stopped in the middle of the verse, knowing that the latter part of it referred to His second advent in power and not His first advent in grace. A single star shines in our night sky but when seen through a telescope it proves to be two. So this predicted advent of Jehovah in the person of the Messiah, is discovered to be two advents in the clearer light of the New Testament.
But the immediate effect of the presence of the Lord and the revelation of His glory would be - What? The complete exposure of the sinfulness and frailty of mankind. Not merely Gentile flesh, or depraved flesh, but "all flesh" is as withered and worthless grass. The Apostle Peter quotes these words at the end of the first chapter of his first Epistle, but in contrast therewith he dwells upon the word of our God which stands for ever. And he assures us that by that living and abiding word of God we have been "born again." So once more we see how New Testament grace shines above Old Testament law.
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