Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
ISAIAH CHAPTER 37
On hearing his ministers' report about Ravshakeh's blasphemies, Hezekiah was obliged to rend his garments (Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 2:8). It is a sign of his loyalty to the path of King David that in the face of the Assyrian threat, Hezekiah immediately sent messengers to the prophet in order to know what to do.
Isaiah told the king's ministers that God would put another spirit into Sennacherib "and he will hear a rumor and return to his own land" (v 7). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Sennacherib would hear the rumor IMMEDIATELY but that his return to his own land would take place only LATER. This is what actually happened. As we read in verse 9, Sennacherib heard a report that Tirhakah king of Kush (in Africa) was on his way out to war against him, and he immediately turned south to march to Egypt to fight him. It was then that he sent messengers to Hezekiah not to think that he was abandoning his plan of capturing Jerusalem (vv 10ff). After defeating the armies of Egypt and Kush Sennacherib did indeed return to Jerusalem laden with plunder, and this was when "the angel of HaShem went out and smote the camp of Assyria" as we read near the end of the present chapter (v 36), forcing Sennacherib to return in disgrace to his land, where he was killed by his own sons (v 38).
The message Sennacherib sent to Hezekiah when he went to fight Tirhakah king of Kush was filled with exactly the same kind of arrogant bombast that his henchman Ravshakeh had spouted forth at the walls of Jerusalem , as described in the previous chapter. Hezekiah took Sennacherib's letters and spread them out in the Temple , where he skillfully used the Assyrian king's blasphemies to add strength to his own appeal to God to deliver Jerusalem in order to show that He alone has power, unlike the idols of wood and stone that had proved incapable of saving the nations who worshipped them (vv 15-21).
God answered Hezekiah through the prophet Isaiah (vv 21-35), castigating Sennacherib for his arrogance. "Through your servants you have taunted HaShem saying, With the multitude of my chariots I have come up to the height of the mountains, to the sides of Lebanon" (v 24). "The height of the mountains" is the Temple Mount , while " Lebanon " refers to the Temple building (Rashi ad loc.), which Sennacherib evidently had visions of destroying.
"Have you not heard long ago how I have done it, and from ancient times that I have formed it?" (v 26) - "Why should you boast? None of these are your achievements. It has been My decree for many years that you should be the one to exact retribution from the nations, as it says, 'Woe Assyria, rod of My wrath' (Is. 10:5)" (Rashi ad loc.).
Precisely because of Sennacherib's arrogance, God would put His hook in his nose and His bridle in his lips (v 29) in order to show him forcibly that he was nothing but His instrument.
"And this shall be a sign to you: you shall eat this year such as grows of itself." (v 30). In this verse the prophet is no longer addressing Sennacherib but Hezekiah, telling him that the coming destruction of the Assyrian army and Sennacherib's ignominious return to his land would be the sign of another miracle that would take place thereafter. This would be that the people of Jerusalem and Judah would have ample food to eat in the coming three years despite the fact that the Assyrian armies had devastated their entire country and that during the siege of Jerusalem cultivation of the land had been completely impossible (see Rashi on v 30).
Just as Isaiah prophesied, Sennacherib was forced to return to Nineveh . Rashi (on v 38) explains that Sennacherib had vowed to his god that if he returned home safely he would offer his two sons as a sacrifice, and this is what motivated them to kill him before he could kill them!
"In those days Hezekiah fell mortally sick." (v 1). Rashi (ad loc.) states that Hezekiah fell sick three days before the fall of Sennacherib's armies. The king's mortal illness just as the armies of the world's greatest superpower were closing in on his last remaining stronghold in the capital immeasurably increased the direness of the peril facing his kingdom.
Isaiah's grim message that Hezekiah was to "die" (in this world) and "not live" (in the world to come, Rashi on v 1) would have thrown any lesser person into complete despair, but Hezekiah had an ancestral tradition that "even if a sharp sword is resting on a man's neck, he should never hold himself back from prayer" (Berachos 10a). "And Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall and prayed" (v 2). The "wall" to which he turned is the "wall in the heart". He directed his "face" i.e. the power of his mind, to this "wall" in order to break down all his inner barriers to complete repentance.
As discussed in KNOW YOUR BIBLE on II Chronicles ch 33, the rabbis taught that Hezekiah's flaw was that he had never married because he had seen with holy spirit that his son Menasheh was destined to be a terrible villain. The act of repentance that now saved Hezekiah's life was that he nevertheless took it upon himself to marry and have children. There is a hint of this in Hezekiah's prayer of thanksgiving after his recovery as recorded in our present chapter, when he said, "A father shall make known Your truth to children" (v 19). We know that Menasheh was twelve years old when he succeeded Hezekiah (II Kings 21:1), and since the latter lived for another fifteen years after his illness, we may infer that Menasheh was born three years after his recovery.
Hezekiah's recovery was not an unequivocal joy to him because it came not in his own merit but in the merit of King David. Thus Isaiah said to him, "So says HaShem the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer." (v 5). For a full discussion of the sign God gave to Hezekiah - turning the clock back ten hours - see KNOW YOUR BIBLE on the parallel account in II Kings ch 20.
"The writing of King Hezekiah king of Judah when he was sick and he lived from his illness" (v 9). Hezekiah's evocation of the suffering he endured in his illness (vv 10-19) is somewhat reminiscent of Job's cries of pain over his suffering. Hezekiah was aged only thirty-nine when he lay on what seemed to be his deathbed, contemplating what he thought would be his complete excision from this world and the next. His miraculous delivery filled him with faith in the resurrection: "The Lord is upon them, they shall LIVE" (v 16). The Targum renders: "HaShem, You have said of all the dead that they shall live, and before all of them you have revived my spirit and brought me to life and sustained me".
"Behold, for in peace I had great bitterness" (v 17) - "When I was given the news that there would be peace, it was nevertheless bitter for me, because my healing was attributed to the merit of others - 'So said HaShem the God of DAVID YOUR FATHER'" (Rashi on v 17). Rashi (ibid.) also offers a simpler explanation of Hezekiah's bitterness - for when he heard the news of Sennacherib's coming overthrow, he thought that he himself was going to die of his illness. This was what made his appreciation of God's mercy in saving him all the greater. He would turn his recovery into the occasion for songs in the Temple all the days of his life (v 20).
"And Isaiah said, Let them take a cake of figs and spread it on the festering sores and he shall recover" (v 21). "This was a miracle within a miracle, because a fig cake can turn even healthy flesh putrid, but here the Holy One blessed be He put something that spoils into something that was spoiled - and it became healed!" (Rashi ad loc.).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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