Chapter 38 is the third of four chapters in the book of Isaiah called the “historical chapters” which describe certain events that occurred during the lifetime of Isaiah. These events are prophetic types for occurrences in the latter days; they are therefore of great importance to us.1
Events prophesied in Chapter 38 were fulfilled shortly after they were foretold by Isaiah. The Assyrian aggressors, however, are typical of an equivalent latter-day superpower that will threaten the Lord’s righteous people. Just as He defended Hezekiah and his people anciently, the Lord will defend His people in the latter days.2 The sign given to Hezekiah to witness that he would be healed of his illness was also given to the entire city of Jerusalem as a promise from the Lord that they would be delivered from the Assyrians. Similarly, the sign given then may be given again to the Lord’s righteous people to assure them that they will be delivered from a modern Assyrian equivalent. Dual fulfillment of prophecy, once in ancient times and again in our own day, is the message of this chapter.
The events of Chapter 38 are also recorded by the scribes of the king, in 2 Kings 20:1-8. A careful comparison of equivalent passages reveals that differences in wording between the two accounts occur in nearly every verse without significantly altering the meaning. However, the narrative by the king’s scribes provides notably more detail regarding the events of this chapter. The lack of detail in Isaiah’s account may indicate that the historical part is not as important for us as the prophetic type presented.
Major events recorded in Chapter 38 are that Hezekiah becomes seriously ill, Isaiah declares the word of the Lord to Hezekiah that he would die, Hezekiah pleads with the Lord to spare his life, Isaiah returns and informs Hezekiah that the Lord would permit him to live another fifteen years, a sign is given to Jerusalem that the Lord would defend her against Assyria and to Hezekiah that he would recover, and Hezekiah praises and thanks the Lord. Rather than continuing the account of the previous chapter, the events of Chapter 38 occurred before or at the same time as those of Chapter 37.3
Verse 1 begins: “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.” “In those days” indicates that these events occurred before or during the time of those of the previous chapter, rather than sequentially after them.
Verse 2 continues: “Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD—” The sentence is continued in the next verse.
In verse 3 Hezekiah’s prayer is summarized, continuing the sentence of verse 2: “And said, Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.” Hezekiah reasons in his prayer that he has walked in obedience before the Lord. His request that his life be spared is implied rather than spoken, in Isaiah’s brief account. All instances of “Hezekiah” in verses 1 through 3 are chiastically equivalent, as are all instances of “the Lord” or O Lord.”4
Hezekiah’s righteousness is manifest by his acts:
He [Hezekiah] removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it….[H]e clave to the LORD, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments, which the LORD commanded Moses.5
Verse 4 continues: “Then came the word of the LORD to Isaiah, saying—” with the sentence continued into the next verse. The account of the king’s scribes provides more detail: “And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying—”6
Verse 5 presents the words of the Lord, continuing the sentence of verse 4: “Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.”7 “The God of David thy father” emphasizes that the Lord’s covenants with king David also pertained to Hezekiah.
The account of the scribes provides more detail, with the Lord addressing Isaiah:
Turn again, and tell Hezekiah, the captain of my people, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the LORD.8
In verse 6, the Lord declares: “And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.” This statement by the Lord shows that Hezekiah’s illness and the events surrounding it occurred before the destruction of the Assyrian army, described in the previous chapter.9 This conclusion is also supported by the first verse of this chapter, which begins with “In those days….”10 The account of the king’s scribes adds: “…and I will defend this city for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake.”11 The Lord’s reason for defending Jerusalem is to honor His covenant with David and his successors that He would defend them in righteousness. “For mine own sake” reflects Hezekiah’s plea in his prayer: “Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his [the king of Assyria’s] hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the LORD, even thou only.”12
“Thus saith the LORD” in verse 5 is followed by the parallel phrase “the God of David thy father.” This, in turn, is followed by five other parallel phrases. The first two begin with “I have heard” and “I have seen,” both in verse 5, referring to Hezekiah’s prayer and tears. The next three begin with “I will,” and denote the things the Lord will do in answer to Hezekiah’s prayer. These are “I will add unto thy days fifteen years” in verse 5, and “I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria” and “I will defend this city,” both in verse 6.
At this point in the narrative of the king’s scribes, information is provided that is not contained in Isaiah’s account until the end of the chapter, where it appears almost as an afterthought (see verses 21 and 22):
And Isaiah said, Take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.
And Hezekiah said unto Isaiah, What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up into the house of the LORD the third day?13
Verse 7 (now returning to Isaiah’s account) declares: “And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken.”14 What the Lord would do, described in the parallel phrases from the account of the scribes cited above, is heal Hezekiah and deliver Jerusalem out of the hand of the king of Assyria. The sign would therefore have a dual purpose—to the inhabitants of Jerusalem it would be an affirmation that the Lord would defend them against the Assyrians, and to Hezekiah it was, in addition, a promise that he would be healed and granted 15 more years of life.
In verse 9 of the account of the scribes, Isaiah asks Hezekiah regarding the sign: “[S]hall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?”15 The subsequent verse provides more detail: “And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees,”16 indicating that it was Hezekiah who chose which of the two options presented by Isaiah would be the sign.
In verse 8 (again, back to Isaiah’s account), the Lord declares: “Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.” In the solar day this would amount to a lengthening by about two-thirds of an hour, or 40 minutes. Note that “I will bring again the shadow of the degrees” is the sixth parallel statement beginning with “I will” or “I have,” starting in verse 5. Like the first five, this sixth one follows a chiastic structure.
Regarding signs in the latter days, the Lord, in revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith, stated:
And it shall come to pass that he that feareth me shall be looking forth for the great day of the Lord to come, even for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.
And they shall see signs and wonders, for they shall be shown forth in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath.17
Great signs and wonders, we are informed, will characterize the time shortly before the Second Coming of the Lord. Imagine the consternation of the modern scientific community as they attempt to explain the sign of the sun going back ten degrees! However, those familiar with the writings of Isaiah will be comforted by it.
Verses 9 through 20 comprise a psalm written by king Hezekiah regarding his illness and miraculous recovery. Verse 9 introduces the psalm: “The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness.”
In verses 10 through 14, Hezekiah describes his illness and great distress at the prospect of his dying. Verse 10 begins: “I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.” The Hebrew word rendered as “cutting off” means “cessation of.”18
Verse 11 continues: “I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.”19 The Great Isaiah Scroll omits “even the LORD.”20 This statement provides an interesting perspective on Hezekiah’s messianic beliefs. Throughout his life he had apparently looked forward to the possibility that the Lord Jehovah would come during his lifetime. With death impending, he expresses severe disappointment that this fond hope would not be fulfilled. Further, he expresses disappointment that he would lose his association with men on the earth.
In verse 12, Hezekiah further mourns the ending of his life: “Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd’s tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.” These similes describe the transient nature of our lives, even as a tent can be taken down and folded or as a weaver cuts across the woven fabric. “Pining sickness” comes from the Hebrew meaning “hanging down.”21
In verse 13, Hezekiah recounts a sleepless night: “I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.” He thought about the process of death, the failure of his body, the ending of his life.
Verse 14 continues: “Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove—” Hezekiah describes his sobbings, likening them to the sounds of these birds. “Mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.” He looks upward spiritually toward the Lord. “Undertake for me” comes from the Hebrew meaning “be my security.”22
In verse 15, Hezekiah acknowledges the Lord healing him: “What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.” He is left speechless by the Lord’s magnanimity in sparing his life—”himself hath done it.” The Joseph Smith Translation renders “…and himself hath healed me: I shall go softly all my years, that I may not walk in the bitterness of my soul.”23 Because of his gratitude for the Lord restoring him to life, he determines to walk “softly”—deliberately24—all his life so that he may not be engulfed in bitterness of soul. This bitterness, or sorrow, comes from the realization of how fleeting life is.
In verses 16 through 20 Hezekiah describes great blessings he has received from the Lord. In verse 16, Hezekiah prays: “O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.” The Joseph Smith Translation adds another phrase: “…and in all these things will I praise thee.”25 The Hebrew word translated as “recover me” means “restore me.”26 Men go through life knowing that life is transitory, and like other men so will Hezekiah go. The Lord’s restoration of his life also gives him a full realization of his mortality.
Verse 17 continues the prayer: “Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.” The Joseph Smith Translation renders “Behold, I had great bitterness instead of peace, but thou hast in love to my soul, saved me from the pit of corruption….”27 Notwithstanding his sorrow upon realizing how short life is, he rejoices in his knowledge of the two-stage salvation provided by the Lord; first, that every man will be restored to life in the resurrection, and second, that the Lord provides a way for us to be forgiven of our sins.
In verse 18, Hezekiah expresses further gratitude: “For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” Praising and celebrating the Lord’s mercy belong to mortality, and hoping for the advent of the Messiah, he reasons, belongs to the living.
Verse 19 concludes Hezekiah’s prayer: “The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.” Hezekiah, permitted to continue living, praises the Lord. As a father and a king, he recognizes his responsibility to teach his children, and also his subjects, the principles of the gospel.
In verse 20, Hezekiah summarizes: “The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.” This psalm was apparently sung accompanied by stringed instruments in the temple.
Verses 10 through 20 contain a chiasm:28
A: (10) I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.
B: (11) I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD,
C: in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.
D: (12) Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd’s tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
E: (13) I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones:
F: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
G: (14) Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.
H: (15) What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me,
H: and himself hath healed me: I shall go softly all my years, that I may not walk in the bitterness of my soul.
G: (16) O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit:
F: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live, and in all these things will I praise thee.
E: 17) Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul saved me from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.
D: (18) For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
C: (19) The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth.
B: (20) The LORD was ready to save me:
A: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.
Hezekiah’s psalm is structured as a chiasm. At the focal point, the Lord heals him: “He hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath healed me.” In the ascending side Hezekiah contemplates his illness and the inevitability of his death; he suffers greatly, considering that earthly joys and glories would soon pass from him. In the descending side he acknowledges the great peace he has received from the Lord through his being healed, both physically and spiritually. Hezekiah resolves to sing songs of praise unto the Lord for the rest of his life. “I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave” contrasts with “therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.”
Verse 21 states: “For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaister upon the boil, and he shall recover.” “Lay it on” comes from the Hebrew meaning “rub it on.”29 This, together with the statement in verse 22, are added by Isaiah speaking in the third person, almost as afterthoughts. The content of this verse is presented earlier in the account of the scribes of the king.30
Verse 22 adds: “Hezekiah also had said, What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the LORD?” This statement is placed at the end of the chapter to diminish its importance in the story, thus elevating the importance and the significance of the other reason for the sign of the sun turning back ten degrees—to bear witness that the Lord would defend His people against the Assyrians, as stated in verse 6. To his modern readers, Isaiah’s message in this chapter is the same: the Lord will defend His righteous followers against the latter-day counterpart of the ancient Assyrians.
1. See Isaiah 36 and 37 and pertinent commentary.
2. See Isaiah 45:3; Isaiah 54:17 and Doctrine and Covenants 71:9-10; Isaiah 29:8; 52:12; 58:8; Doctrine and Covenants 45:66; 63:34; 97:25.
3. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 330.
4. Verses 1 through 3 contain a chiasm: Hezekiah sick unto death/the LORD/die/not live/the LORD/Hezekiah wept sore. Verses 2 and 3 contain an overlapping chiasm: Hezekiah/prayed/ the LORD/O LORD/I beseech thee/ Hezekiah.
5. 2 Kings 18:4, 6.
6. 2 Kings 20:4.
7. Verses 4 and 5 contain a chiasm: Word of the LORD/Isaiah/saying/say/to Hezekiah/Thus saith the LORD.
8. 2 Kings 20:5.
9. See Isaiah 37:36.
10. Isaiah 38:1.
11. 2 Kings 20:6.
12. Isaiah 37:20.
13. Kings 20:7-8.
14. Verse 7 contains a chiasm: This shall be/sign unto thee/the LORD/the LORD/will do/this thing.
15. 2 Kings 20:9.
16. 2 Kings 20:10.
17. Doctrine and Covenants 45:39-40.
18. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 1824, p. 198.
19. Verses 10 and 11 contain a chiasm: Cutting off of my days/gates of the grave/ the LORD/the LORD/land of the living/behold man no more.
20. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 155.
21. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 1803, p. 195.
22. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 6148, p. 786.
23. Joseph Smith’s “New Translation” of the Bible: Herald Publishing House, Independence, Missouri, 1970, p. 207.
24. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 1718, p. 186.
25. JST, p. 207.
26. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 2421, p. 1092.
27. JST, p. 207.
28. Compare Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 332-334.
29. Isaiah 38:21, footnote 21a.
30. 2 Kings 20:7.