Avraham ben Yaakov
ISAIAH CHAPTER 39
King Hezekiah sang over his own delivery from the very threshold of death (chapter 38 vv 9-20), but he did not lead his nation in song over Jerusalem 's miraculous delivery from the clutches of Sennacherib. Had Hezekiah followed the example of Moses and Israel, who sang to God after the overthrow of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, he might have instilled in his people such faith in the Almighty's absolute power over all things that the final redemption would have come and the knowledge of God would have spread to all the nations, and then Hezekiah would have been Melech HaMashiach. Our rabbis saw his failure to sing over Sennacherib's overthrow as a fatal flaw (Sanhedrin 94a; see KNOW YOUR BIBLE commentary on Isaiah 9:6) and our present chapter, Isaiah 39, traces the tragic sequel to the delivery of Jerusalem and Hezekiah's miraculous recovery from mortal illness, in which his subsequent lack of discretion sealed the fate of the First Temple and of Judah. For despite the present respite, in only a few generations the Temple would be destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, who would take the king and all the people into exile.
The astounding, totally unexpected blow that the tottering Assyrian superpower suffered at the gates of Jerusalem surely caused great joy to the rulers of Babylon, which was then at the beginning of its own ascent to world supremacy. Their wonder at this freak occurrence was greatly enhanced by the fact that it was accompanied by the freak "expansion of time" when God lengthened the day by ten hours as a sign that Hezekiah would recover from his illness (see Isaiah 38:8). Rashi (on v 1 of our present chapter) explains that the reason why Bal'adan king of Babylon "heard that [Hezekiah] became sick and recovered" was because "he was accustomed to eating at the third hour [9:00 a.m.] every morning, after which he would then sleep until the ninth hour [3:00 p.m.]. On the day when the sun went backwards for Hezekiah's sake, Bal'adan awoke from his sleep at the ninth hour only to discover that it was morning. He wanted to kill all his servants, accusing them of leaving him to sleep for a whole day and night until the following morning. They explained to him that it was the sun that had gone backwards, and when he asked who sent the sun backwards they said it was the God of Hezekiah" (see Tanchuma Ki Tissa & Shekalim 14).
Perhaps we can detect in this Midrash a reference to the fact that the delivery of Jerusalem and Hezekiah's freak recovery from the doors of death turned time backwards in the sense that it gave a new lease of life to the kingship of the House of David and the First Temple . The striking impression that these events made upon the Babylonian court could have led to a tremendous sanctification of God's Name in the eyes of all the nations had Hezekiah impressed upon their emissaries that these miracles were conclusive proof of HaShem's supremacy over all creation. Had he taken full advantage of this moment of grace, he could have brought about the redemption.
Instead Hezekiah made a great feast for his Babylonian visitors and took them on a grand tour of all his treasures, ignoring the caution of the rabbis that "blessing is found only in something that is hidden from the eye" (Taanis 8b). It is great folly to show all that is most precious to oneself quite indiscriminately to anybody and everybody, because one never knows how the public flaunting of one's own blessings might arouse the evil eye of others, who may have reason to be jealous and to stir up accusations. "There was not anything that Hezekiah did not show them" (v 2) - "even the Torah scroll" (Rashi ad loc.). In other words, Hezekiah gave away all his secrets in the naïve belief that his visitors from the fresh little star of Babylon were OK people.
Hezekiah was also considered foolish in the way he answered Isaiah's question as to the identity of his visitors. He should have said, "You are the prophet and you are asking me???" Instead he pompously told Isaiah that "they came to me from a far-off land, from Babylon!" as if to say, They came from so far away just to see ME!!! Hezekiah's answer was considered in the same category as Cain's answer to God when He asked "Where is your brother?" (Genesis 4:9) and Bila'am's answer to God when He asked "Who are these men with you?" (Numbers 22:9; see Rashi on verse 3 of our present chapter).
Because of his one indiscretion in showing the accuser all his secret treasures, Hezekiah lost out and the fate of the Temple and Judah was sealed, as Isaiah now told him (vv 6-7). With stoic resignation, Hezekiah accepted the divine decree, consoling himself with the thought that it was not to be carried out in his own generation and that "there will be peace and truth in my days" (v 8).
"Isaiah now returns to his prophecies about the future. The rest of the book from this point on until the end consists of words of comfort. The preceding narrative section about the overthrow of Sennacherib and Hezekiah's recovery from his illness etc. (chs 36-39) was placed here to separate the earlier sections of the work dealing with retribution from the coming consolations" (Rashi on v 1).
"Comfort, comfort My people." (v 1). God is telling His prophets to give comfort to His people (Metzudas David). In the Hebrew text, the verb NACHAMU is repeated twice. In the words of the Midrash: "This is as if to say: Give her comfort, O you beings of the supernal worlds, and give her comfort, O you beings of the lower worlds. Let the living give her comfort and let the dead give her comfort! Give her comfort in this world, and give her comfort in the world to come! Comfort her over the Ten Tribes and comfort her over Judah and Benjamin! Jeremiah said, 'She shall surely cry', doubling the Hebrew verb 'cry' (BAKHO TIVKHEH, Lamentations 1:2), signifying weeping over the First Temple and weeping over the Second Temple . Therefore the word 'comfort' is also repeated twice" (Yalkut Shimoni).
" Israel said to Isaiah: Isaiah our master, could it be that you have only come to comfort the generation in whose days the Temple was destroyed. He replied: I have come to comfort ALL the generations. It does not say, 'Your God HAS said' but 'Your God WILL say' (v 1; Yalkut Shimoni).
".for her iniquity is pardoned, for she has received of HaShem's hand DOUBLE for all her sins" (v 2) - "This refers to the double exile of Israel - the exile to Babylon and the present exile. They also received 'double' because of their own sins and the sins of their fathers" (RaDaK ad loc.).
"A voice cries, Prepare in the wilderness the way of HaShem." (v 3). It is as if a voice is announcing the making of a road to Jerusalem along which the exiles will go in order to return (Rashi, Metzudas David, RaDaK ad loc.). "It is called the 'way of HaShem' because it is He who leads the people as they leave their exile" (RaDaK). "Every valley shall be exalted and every hill shall be made low" (v 4). On the simple level, the effect of this is to make the homeward road flat and effortless! On the level of allusion, the meek shall be raised up while the haughty shall be cast down.
Vv 6-8: Man's kindness is evanescent and undependable, but God's word shall stand forever: nothing will prevent the redemption and the ingathering of the exiles.
V 11: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom" - "Just as a shepherd pastures his flock gently and gathers in the lambs with his arm and not with a rod, so God will lead them gently on their return from exile" (Metzudas David ad loc.).
The sublime passage in vv 12-26 evokes the unfathomable majesty of God's omnipotent power and knowledge in contrast with the puniness of the nations and their lifeless idols.
"Who has measured the WATERS in the hollow of his hand and meted out the HEAVEN (=FIRE) with the span, and comprehended the DUST OF THE EARTH in a measure. Who has directed the spirit (WIND, AIR) of HaShem?" (vv 12-13). These verses allude to the FOUR ELEMENTS of creation, Fire, Water, Air and Earth - all of which were created by God alone. The prophet mocks the nations, who are not merely a drop (MAR) in the bucket but worse still, the bitter (=MAR) scum that gathers at the very bottom (v 15, see Rashi ad loc.). Likewise Isaiah pours scorn upon the nations' carefully wrought idols (vv 19-20).
"Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning?" (v 21). "Do you not know?" - "From the careful application of reason you should be able to know who is the Master of the World"; "Have you not heard?" - "from a teacher or guide who investigated using his powers of reasoning"; "Has it not been told to you." - through a chain of tradition reaching back to antiquity" (Metzudas David ad loc. cf. RaDaK).
"Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?" (v 21) - "The prophet is saying that the earth does not have a foundation, because the heavens surround it all around, and on what does it stand if not through the decree of the Almighty?" (Metzudas David). In the same vein, RaDaK comments on v 28, "HaShem, the creator of the ends of the earth": "This comes to make it known that He created the earth as a round globe in the middle of the spheres that surround it all about, and the earth is like the point at the center of a sphere. The Holy One blessed be He makes her stand in the middle without any support, through His power alone, as it says, 'He hangs the earth on nothingness' (Job 26:7). None of the 'ends of the earth' are more inclined to one or other of the six directions, because the earth is exactly in the middle on every side and from every direction".
"Lift up your eyes on high and behold who (MEE) has created these (ELEH)." The letters of the two Hebrew words MEE and ELEH make up the holy name of God, ELO-HEEM (which should be pronounced ELOKEEM except when used in prayer).
"Why do you say. My way is hidden from HaShem.?" (v 27). "The prophet here addresses Israel in exile asking why they believe that because of the length of the exile their way must be hidden from God, as if He does not watch over them providentially" (RaDaK ad loc.).
"Do you not know? Have you not heard. the everlasting God is never tired and never weary!!! He gives power to the faint and to the powerless He increases strength" (vv 28-9). "When God chooses, He will give strength and power to Israel even though they are exiled, tired and weary" (RaDaK on v 29).
"But those who wait for HaShem will renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint" (v 31).
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Verses 1-26 of this beautiful chapter make up the Haftarah of SHABBOS NACHAMU (so called after the opening word of the chapter) - the Sabbath of comfort following the fast of Tisha B'Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple .
Verses 27-31 of the present chapter together with ch 41 vv 1-16 make up the Haftarah of Parshas LECH LECHA (Genesis 12:1-17:27).
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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