Volume 47 - Issue 3
One of the Saddest Texts in the OTBy D. A. Carson
Three OT passages devote considerable space to the life and times of King Hezekiah, and disclose what a good and faithful man he could be (2 Kgs 18–20; 2 Chron 29–32; Isa 36–39). We gladly remember his far-reaching efforts to lead the nation into reformation in line with Torah, and we are moved by Hezekiah’s stunning courage and faithful trust when he is forced to confront Sennacherib.
None of these three OT documents glosses over Hezekiah’s moral failures. But two of the three, viz., 2 Kings and Isaiah, treat one of his failures in a distinctive way that generates a narrative of surpassing sadness. For the sake of simplicity, I shall focus attention on Isaiah 39:1–8, and draw attention to three details.
First, like many biblical narratives, this chapter provides the capstone to stunning moral contrast. After witnessing Hezekiah’s faith and courage in Isaiah 36–37, and after meditating on his extraordinary prayer in 37:14–20, we cannot help but feel let down when we learn about his whining self-pity in chapter 38 and his foolish boasting to the Babylonian emissaries in 39:1–2, which leads to the staggering divine rebuke of 39:5–7. How can the same man be so good and so bad, so wise and so foolish, so God-centered and so self-focused? We like our heroes and models to be a little more consistent. The moral contrast is not only startling, it is discouraging.
Yet this is not what makes Isaiah 39 one of the saddest texts in the OT. Even as it provides the capstone to stunning moral contrast, it is entirely in line with many biblical narratives, as I stipulated. There is no warrant to extract a superlative out of this narrative: so far, it is sad enough, but certainly not the “saddest.” Abraham, that great man of faith and father of the faithful, lies so shamefully that he endangers his wife; Moses, that most humble of men, vents his frustration in self-righteous anger when he strikes the rock; David, a man after God’s own heart, is not only a blameworthy father but an adulterer and a murderer. And if we look for NT examples, we soon think of Peter, the apostle who is shown by the Father who Jesus is, yet thinks he knows enough he can correct Jesus’s theology, and, worse, three times denies knowing who Jesus is, bringing himself to tears; and so on, and so on. True, there is a handful of characters in the Bible about whom nothing negative is recorded (e.g., Joseph, Daniel, Esther), but their numbers are vastly exceeded by those whose lives betray discouraging moral contradictions, deep moral contrasts. And Hezekiah falls into their number.
Second, while holding to some form or other of the doctrine of providence, Hezekiah twists it to no good purpose. To put it a slightly different way, Hezekiah tips his hat to honor God’s sovereignty, but applies it to his life with a perverse willfulness: he commits himself to whole-hearted submission to God’s will in order to secure his own selfishness. When in the name of God the prophet Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah for the way he stooped to disgraceful bragging before the envoys from Babylon, thereby endangering the kingdom, the prophet spares Hezekiah no details of the disastrous judgment ahead: the wealth of the kingdom will be “carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left” (Isa 39:6). Moreover, the impending disaster will have a personal dimension: “And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (39:7). Hezekiah’s response? “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” he replies (39:8a). A superficial initial glance might lead the reader to think that Hezekiah wants nothing more than the will of God, even if that will spells judgment. But the last line of verse 8 betrays the utterly selfish heart of this spent king. The reason Hezekiah can sound so sanguine about the terrible justice hanging over him and his dynasty is that he thinks, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime” (39:8b).
Contrast the response of David to the threat of judgment. In the wake of the adultery and murder he committed, David is told not only of the judgment that will befall the nation, but of the death of his son born to Bathsheba. David repents of his sin, and Nathan the prophet declares, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die” (2 Sam 12:13–14). For the next week, as the child fights for his life, David clothes himself in dust and ashes, and refuses to eat. When the infant finally dies, David’s attendants are hesitant to tell their master: “While the child was still living, he [David] wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate” (2 Sam 12:18). But the tragic news is soon made clear, whereupon David washes himself, puts on clean clothes and lotions, worships the Lord, and then sits down to a good meal. David’s attendants make no sense of this: “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!” (2 Sam 12:21). It is in his reply that David shows himself to be so different from Hezekiah. David tells, his attendants, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:22–23).
David hears the pronouncement of God’s judgment and knows it is deserved, but he also recognizes that God is more than raw will. God interacts with his people, and he is very merciful: despite the divine decree, perhaps the child will be spared. Hezekiah too recognizes the will of God, and he too knows that the pronounced judgment is deserved, but his affirmations of God’s will are blindingly selfish. He offers no intercession for the people over whom he rules. Even when he is told that some of his own descendants will be castrated in the wretchedness of war, he remains unmoved. “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” he tells the prophet Isaiah—not because he throws himself on the mercy of God, but because the judgments that God has ordained are scheduled to hit after Hezekiah is dead: “There will be peace and security in my lifetime” (39:8). This king who could face down Sennacherib now cares for no one, not even his children and grandchildren, more than he cares for himself. It was once said of this king, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook” (2 Kgs 18:5–7). But Hezekiah ends up with no horizon larger than his own comforts. There is a poignancy in this narrative that is immeasurably sad.
Third, Hezekiah serves as a tangible demonstration of one of the great themes of Isaiah 40–66. In some ways, this sad chapter, Isaiah 39, announces one of the drumming themes of the rest of this prophecy. In the rest of his book, the prophet keeps flipping back and forth between a focus on spiritual vitality and a focus on catastrophic condemnation. God is immeasurably merciful; Israel is immeasurably unfaithful (Isa 43:14–28). Israel is chosen by God; Israel cherishes worthless idols (Isa 44), and pursues iniquity and injustice (Isa 59). Jerusalem will be restored (Isa 44:24–28; 51:1–16; 54) and Israel will be freed (Isa 48:12–15; 49:8–21), but with salvation comes judgment (Isa 65). Even in the closing two chapters, there is both judgment and hope: new heavens and a new earth, along with ghastly failure and death.
Whether in the profile of one individual leader or in the profile of the covenant people of God, we are called to press on—to emulate the examples of courageous faith and to grieve bitterly over the examples of blistering selfishness. The voice of the exalted Master still says, “Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Rev 2:10).
D. A. Carson
D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.
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