Day Ten of “Through Advent with Isaiah”
Chapters 36 through 39 of the Book of Isaiah stand out because they are the longest section of prose is what is otherwise mostly a book of poetry. As well, the four chapters are more or less identical with II Kings 18-20, with the exception of Isaiah 38.9-20, which is thought to be a poetic addition by an editor, although the poem may go back to Hezekiah or someone contemporary with him.
The four chapters breaks down into three episodes, with some subsections:
Episode 1: The Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem 36.1-37.38 (= II Kings 18.9 – 19.35)
Episode 2: Hezekiah’s Illness 38.1-22 (= II Kings 20.1-11)
Episode 3: A Visitor from Babylon 39.1-8 (= II Kings 20.12-19)
The third episode is the most striking to me.
1At that time King Merodach-baladan son of Baladan of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. 2Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure-house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armoury, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. 3Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, ‘What did these men say? From where did they come to you?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.’ 4He said, ‘What have they seen in your house?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.’
5 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 7Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ 8Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’ – Isaiah 39.1-8
There is a prophecy here of what would happen in the next century. Everything in the Temple would be taken away, and some of Hezekiah’s descendants would become castrated slaves in Babylon. And yet the King is happy, because this will not happen in his lifetime; “Après nous, le déluge.” Hezekiah’s disregard for the future is callous, and stands in contrast to the trauma experienced by the people of Judah, as expressed in Psalm 89. In it God promises:
35 “Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall continue for ever,
and his throne endure before me like the sun.
37 It shall be established for ever like the moon,
an enduring witness in the skies.” – Psalm 89.35-37
But then the psalmist responds:
38 But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have broken through all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbours.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword,
and you have not supported him in battle.
44 You have removed the sceptre from his hand,
and hurled his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame. – Psalm 89.38-45
This is probably the angriest psalm in the whole book. Then there is the sadness of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy. – Psalm 137.1-6
It is in the context of the anger and sadness caused by the trauma of the Babylonian Exile that we hear the words of Chapter 40 as such a contrast to the callous words of Hezekiah:
1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. -Isaiah 40.1-2
So what is going on here? Is this just a foreshadowing?
One of the things that occurs to me is that the only other significant passage of prose is the parallel encounters of Isaiah and Ahaz in Chapter 7. You will recall that Stan Walters saw Chapters 2-12 as a unit, with the call of Isaiah in the centre in Chapter 6. Then follows the prose and poetry of chapter 7 and the fear of the alliance between Israel and Damascus. Chapters 36 to 39 function a bit like that in the Book of Isaiah as well – an echo and expansion of the older unit of 2-12. The rest of the second half of 2-12, namely 8 to 12, describes as ideal king, a Messiah. Perhaps the hope was that Hezekiah would be that king – but he was not. He was in distress about the assault of Assyria, and was callous about the fate of his heirs. We do not hear about King Josiah, his grandson, but I suspect there was a hope that he would be the one to restore Israel – but he died suddenly and young, and everything went downhill after that.
Isaiah prophesies that the descendants of Hezekiah would be eunuchs in the palace of the Babylonian kings. I do not recall any other reference to the royal kings and princes being made eunuchs – blinded and executed, yes, but not castrated. So what might be being said here? Perhaps the prophet is suggesting that the House of David reaches a kind of dead end with the Babylonian Exile. The Messiah will have to be understood differently. And that is precisely what seems to happen in II Isaiah – the people become the servant of Yahweh in place of the monarch.