In this chapter, we get two stories involving King Hezekiah (of Judah) being ill. My study Bible argues that the stories are presented in the wrong chronological space, as they should be taking place prior to Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701BCE. As I’ll note when we come to them, there are some minor hints in the narratives that suggest this to be the case.

The chapter opens as Hezekiah is ill and near death. His illness is unspecified here, but we find out later that it involves a boil, so enjoy that lovely image.

Isaiah came to Hezekiah’s bedside to tell him that his illness is a terminal one, so he should get his affairs in order. At this, Hezekiah turns to face the wall and prays to God, reminding God of all the lovely Asherah he cut down and how he’s always played for Team God.

Isaiah was just leaving when God turned him back to tell Hezekiah that his prayer has been heard and that he will be healed. Much is made of the prediction that, in three days, Hezekiah would go to the temple. This presumably means that he will be well enough to do so (indicating his recovery) and/or that he will be making a sacrifice in gratitude for a successful healing. After this, he will be allowed to live in additional fifteen years, and God will deliver both Hezekiah and Jerusalem from Assyrian hands.

This is our first set of clues that Hezekiah’s illness is meant to take place prior to the events of the last two chapters. If Hezekiah died in 687 BCE, then 15 years prior to that would put the year around 702 BCE. Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem is believed to have taken place in 701 BCE. Also, the idea that Hezekiah and Jerusalem should require deliverance from Assyria suggests either that the attack is impeding, or that they are currently in the middle of it (since Jerusalem had already been delivered from Assyrian hands in the last chapter).

To help Hezekiah recover, Isaiah has a fig cake brought to him, which he then lays over Hezekiah’s boil (and which, hopefully, no one will mistake for leftovers later on). This sounded rather folksy to be, and my study Bible confirms that the use of a fig cake “as a poultice was widespread in Bible times.” It seems that Isaiah was here doing what would have been done anyway, and perhaps we’re to understand that it only worked in this case – the condition being so serious – because of divine intercession.

But Hezekiah isn’t content with any of this, so he demands that Isaiah give him a sign that the prophecy is a true one. Isaiah, ever obliging, gives him a choice: Would he like to see shadows moving backward or forward?

Hezekiah has seen plenty of shadows lengthen, so he would like to see them shorten. It’s an odd statement, perhaps indicative of Hezekiah’s sleep habits. Because, of course, shadows do shorten in the mornings, then length again as the sun moves (from our perspective) away from its apex. So has Hezekiah just never woken up before noon?

Or perhaps a clause indicating the current time of day in which this story takes place is needed. What Hezekiah really means is, then, that he does not see shadows shortening at this time of day.

In any case, Isaiah acquiesces, and they see the shadow moving back on the “dial of Ahaz” (2 Kings 20:11). Commenters seem to assume that this is a miracle similar to the one in Joshua 10:13, in which God temporarily alters the movement of the sun. However, I didn’t find this clearly stated. It’s perfectly plausible that God simply made the shadow move independently of the sun’s position in the sky, which is just as nifty a miracle.

The Babylonian Envoys

While Hezekiah is ill, we’re told that King Merodach-baladan of Babylon sent him some get well cards and a gift. Hezekiah seems to be better by the time they reach him, however, as he seems to have no trouble giving them a tour around his palace and the temple, showing off all the nice stuff he has.

2 Kings 20When Isaiah asks him what that was all about, Hezekiah explains that he was just showing off Judah’s wealth to the Babylonian envoys. Isaiah is not impressed, and warns him that all that nice stuff the envoys have just seen will be carried off to Babylon in later days, and none of it will be left in Judah.

Hezekiah isn’t particularly bothered, so long as he gets peace in his own lifetime. This, I remind you, is the guy our authors describe as doing “what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3).

According to Wikipedia, Merodach-baladan (or Madruk-apla-iddina II) “was a Chaldean prince who usurped the Babylonian throne in 721 BC and reigned in 722 BC–710 BC, and 703 BC–702 BC.” It seems that he ruled over a very unstable time, and had Assyrians to contend with himself. Josephus’s explanation that his gift would have been an attempt to secure allies seems plausible (Antiquities 2.2).

My New Bible Commentary goes a step further and wonders if it was Merodach-baladan’s resistance against the Assyrians that prompted Hezekiah to goad them, leading to the events of 2 Kings 18-19 (p.364).

Of the rest of his reign, we hear only that Hezekiah built a pool with a conduit to bring water into Jerusalem. My study Bible wonders if this might have been to provide an alternative source of water in preparation for an Assyrian attack. The conduit is believed to (possibly) be referring to Hezekiah’s Tunnel (or the Siloam Tunnel).

When Hezekiah died, he was succeeded by his son, Manasseh.