Who was Hezekiah?
Hezekiah was one of the greatest of the kings of Judah; reigned (according to the most self-consistent chronology) from circa 715 to circa 690 bc.
I. Sources for His Life and Times
1. Scripture Annals
The historical accounts in 2Ki 18-20,2 Chronicles 29-32 are derived in the main from the same state annals, though the latter seems also to have had the Temple archives to draw upon. For "the rest of his acts" 2 Ki refers to a source then still in existence but now lost, "the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah" ( 2 Kings 20:20 ), and 2 Chronicles to "the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, in the book of the kings of Judah and Israel" (2 Chronicles 32:32 ).
In this last-named source (if this is the original of our Book of Isa.), besides the warnings and directions called out by the course of the history, there is a narrative section (Isa 36-39) recounting the Sennacherib crisis much as do the other histories, but incorporating also a passage of Isaianic prophecy (Isaiah 37:22-32 ) and a "writing of Hezekiah king of Judah" (Isaiah 38:10-20 ). Lastly, in Sirach 48:17-25, there is a summary of the good and wise deeds of Hezekiah, drawn from the accounts that we already have.
2. View-Point and Colouring
Of these sources the account in 2 Kings is most purely historianic, originating at a time when religious and political values, in the Hebrew mind, were inseparable. In 2 Ch the religious point and coloring, especially in its later developed ritual and legal aspects, has the decided predominance. Sirach, with the mind of a man of letters, is concerned mainly with eulogizing Hezekiah. in his "praise of famous men" (compare Sirach 44 through 50), of course from the devout Hebrew point of view.
In the vision of Isaiah ( Isaiah 1 through 39), we have the reflection of the moral and spiritual situation in Jerusalem, as realized in the fervid prophetic consciousness; and in the prophecy of his younger contemporary Micah, the state of things in the outlying country districts nearest the path of invasion, where both the iniquities of the ruling classes and the horrors of war were felt most keenly. Doubtless also many devotional echoes of these times of stress are deducible from the Psalms, so far as we can fairly identify them.
It is in Hezekiah's times especially that the Assyrian inscriptions become illuminating for the history of Israel; for one important thing they furnish certain fixed dates to which the chronology of the times can be adjusted. Of Sennacherib's campaign of 701, for instance, no fewer than six accounts are at present known (see G.A. Smith, Jerusalem , II, 154, note), the most detailed being the "Taylor Cylinder," now in the British Museum, which in the main agrees, or at least is not inconsistent, with the Scripture history.
II. Events of His Reign
1. His Heritage
From his weak and unprincipled father Ahaz (compare 2 Chronicles 28:16-25 ), Hezekiah inherited not only a disorganized realm but a grievous burden of Assyrian dominance and tribute, and the constant peril and suspense of greater encroachments from that arrogant and arbitrary power: the state of things foretold in Isaiah 7:20 ; Isaiah 8:7 f. The situation was aggravated by the fact that not only the nation's weakness but its spiritual propensities had incurred it: the dominant classes were aping the sentiments, fashions and cult of the East (compare Isaiah 2:6-8 ), while the neglected common people were exposed to the corruptions of the still surviving heathenism of the land.
The realm, in short, was at the spiritual nadir-point from which prophets like Isaiah and Micah were laboring to bring about the birth of a true Hebrew conscience and faith. Their task was a hard one: with a nation smear-eyed, dull-cared, fat-hearted (Isaiah 6:10 ), whose religion was a precept of men learned by rote (Isaiah 29:13 ). Clearly, from this point of view, a most difficult career was before him.
2. Religious Reform
The sense of this unspiritual state of things furnishes the best keynote of Hezekiah's reforms in religion, which according to the Chronicler he set about as soon as he came to the throne (2 Chronicles 29:3 ). It is the Chronicler who gives the fullest account of these reforms (2 Ch 29 through 31); naturally, from his priestly point of view and access to ecclesiastical archives. Hezekiah began with the most pressing constructive need, the opening and cleansing of the Temple, which his father Ahaz had left closed and desecrated (2 Chronicles 28:24 ), and went on to the reorganization of its liturgical and choral service.
In connection with this work he appointed a Passover observance, which, on a scale and spirit unknown since Solomon (2 Chronicles 30:26 ), he designed as a religious reunion of the devout-minded in all Israel, open not only to Jerusalem and Judah, but to all who would accept his invitation from Samaria, Galilee, and beyond the Jordan (2 Chronicles 30:5-12 , 2 Chronicles 30:18 ). The immediate result of the enthusiasm engendered by this Old Home Week was a vigorous popular movement of iconoclasm against the idolatrous high places of the land.
That this was no weak fanatical impulse to break something, but a touch of real spiritual quickening, seems evidenced by one incident of it: the breaking up of Moses' old brazen serpent and calling it what it had come to mean, neḥushtān , "a piece of brass" (2 Kings 18:4 ); the movement seems in fact to have had in it the sense, however crude, that old religious forms had become hurtful and effete superstitions, hindering spirituality. Nor could the movement stop with the old fetish. With it went the demolition of the high places themselves and the breaking down of the pillars (maccēbhōth ) and felling of the sacred groves ('ăshērāh ), main symbols these of a debasing naturecult. This reform, on account of later reactions (see under MANASSEH ), has been deemed ineffective; rather, its effects were inward and germinal; nor were they less outwardly than could reasonably be expected, before its meanings were more deepened and centralized.
3. Internal Improvements
All this, on the king's part, was his response to the spiritual influence of Isaiah, with whose mind his own was sincerely at one. As a devout disciple in the school of prophetic ideas, he earnestly desired to maintain the prophet's insistent attitude of "quietness and confidence" (compare Isaiah 30:15 ), that is, of stedfast trust in Yahweh alone, and of abstinence from revolt and entangling alliances with foreign powers. This, however, in the stress and suspense of the times, did not preclude a quiet preparation for emergencies; and doubtless the early years of his reign were notable, not only for mild and just administration throughout his realm, but for measures looking to the fortifying and defense of the capital.
His work of repairing and extending the walls and of strengthening the citadel (Millo), as mentioned in 2 Chronicles 32:5 , had probably been in progress long before the Assyrian crisis was imminent. Nor was he backward in coming to an understanding with other nations, as to the outlook for revolt against Assyria. He could not learn his lesson of faith all at once, especially with a factious court pulling the other way. He did not escape the suspicion of Sargon (died 705), who for his Egyptian leanings counted him among the "plotters of sedition" (compare COT , 100); while the increasing prosperity and strength of his realm marked him for a leading role in an eventual uprising. He weathered at least one chance of rebellion, however, in 711, probably through the strenuous exertions of Isaiah (see Isaiah 20:1 ).
4. The Assyrian Crisis
Hezekiah's opportunity to rise against Assyrian domination seems to have been taken about 704. How so pious a king came to do it in spite of Isaiah's strenuous warnings, both against opposition to Assyria and alliance with other powers, is not very clear. The present writer ventures to suggest the view that the beginning was forced or perhaps sprung upon him by his princes and nobles. In the year before, Sargon, dying, had left his throne to Sennacherib, and, as at all ancient changes of sovereignty, this was the signal for a general effort for independence on the part of subject provinces.
That was also the year of Hezekiah's deadly illness (2 Kings 20 ; Isaiah 38 ), when for a time we know not how long he would be incapacitated for active administration of affairs. Not unlikely on his recovery he found his realm committed beyond withdrawal to an alliance with Egypt and perhaps the leadership of a coalition with Philistia; in which case personally he could only make the best of the situation. There was nothing for it but to confirm this coalition by force, which he did in his Philistine campaign mentioned in 2 Kings 18:8 . Meanwhile, in the same general uprising, the Chaldean Merodach-baladan, who had already been expelled from Babylon after an 11-year reign (721-710), again seized that throne; and in due time envoys from him appeared in Jerusalem, ostensibly to congratulate the king on his recovery from his illness, but really to secure his aid and alliance against Assyria (2 Kings 20:12-15 ; Isaiah 39:1-4 ).
Hezekiah, flattered by such distinguished attention from so distant and powerful a source, by revealing his resources committed what the Chronicler calls the one impious indiscretion of his life (2 Chronicles 32:31 ), incurring also Isaiah's reproof and adverse prediction (2 Kings 20:17 f; Isaiah 39:6 f). The conflict with Sennacherib was now inevitable; and Hezekiah, by turning the water supply of Jerusalem from the Gihon spring to a pool within the walls and closing it from without, put the capital in readiness to stand a siege. The faith evoked by this wise work, confirmed by the subsequent deliverance, is reflected in Psalm 46:1-11 . That this incurring of a hazardous war, however, with its turmoils and treacheries, and the presence of uncouth Arab mercenaries, was little to the king's desire or disposition, seems indicated in Psalm 120:1-7 , which with the other Songs of Degrees (Pss 120 through 134) may well reflect the religious faith of this period of Hezekiah's life.
5. Invasion and Deliverance
The critical moment came in 701, when Sennacherib, who the year before had reconquered Babylon and expelled Merodach-baladan (perhaps Isaiah 21:1-9 refers to and this), was free to invade his rebellious provinces in the West. It was a vigorous and sweeping campaign; in which, beginning with Sidon and advancing down through the coast lands, he speedily subdued the Philistine cities, defeating them and their southern allies (whether these were from Egypt proper or from its extension across the Sinai peninsula and Northern Arabia, Muçri, is not quite clear) at Eltekeh; in which campaign, according to his inscription, he took 46 walled towns belonging to Judah with their spoil and deported over 200,000 of their inhabitants.
This, which left Jerusalem a blockaded town (in fact he says of Hezekiah: "Himself I shut up like a bird in a cage in Jerusalem his royal city"), seems referred to in Isaiah 1:7-9 and predicted in Isaiah 6:11 f. Its immediate effect was to bring Hezekiah to terms and extort an enormous tribute ( 2 Kings 18:14-16 ). When later, however, he was treacherous enough to disregard the compact thus implied (perhaps Isa 33 refers to this), and demanded the surrender of the city (2 Ki 18:17 through 19:7; Isa 36:2 through 37:7), Hezekiah besought the counsel of Isaiah, who bade him refuse the demand, and predicted that Sennacherib would "hear tidings" and return to his own land; which prediction actually came to pass, and suddenly Hezekiah found himself free. A deliverance so great, and so signally vindicating the setting forth of faith, could not but produce a momentous revulsion in the nation's mind, like a new spiritual birth in which the faith of the "remnant" became a vital power in Israel; its immediate effect seems portrayed in Psalm 124:1-8 and perhaps Psalm 126:1-6 , and its deep significance as the birth of a nation in a day seems summarized long afterward in Isaiah 66:7-9 ; compare Isaiah 37:3 ; 2 Kings 19:3 .
6. The Second Summons
A second summons to surrender, sent from Libnah by letter (2 Kings 19:1 ; Isaiah 37:8 ), is treated by the Scripture historians as a later feature of the same campaign; but recent researches seem to make it possible, nay probable, that this belonged to another campaign of Sennacherib, when Taharka of Ethiopia ( Tirhākāh , 2 Kings 19:9 ; Isaiah 37:9 ) came to power in Egypt, in 691. If this was so, there is room in Hezekiah's latter years for a decade of peace and prosperity (compare 2 Chronicles 32:22 , 2 Chronicles 32:23 , 2 Chronicles 32:27-30 ), and in Isaiah's old age for a collection and revision of his so wonderfully vindicated prophecies.
The historians' evident union of two stories in one makes the new attitude with which this crisis was met, obscure; but the tone of confirmed confidence and courage seems decidedly higher. The discomfiture of Sennacherib in this case was brought about, not by a rumor of rebellions at home, but by an outbreak of plague (2 Kings 19:35 f; Isaiah 37:36 f), which event the Scripture writers interpreted as a miracle. The prophetic sign of deliverance ( 2 Kings 19:29 ; Isaiah 37:30 ) may be referred to the recovery of the devastated lands from the ravage inflicted by Sennacherib in his first campaign (compare also Psalm 126:5 f).
III. His Character
Our estimate of Hezekiah's character is most consistently made by regarding him as a disciple of Isaiah, who was earnestly minded to carry out his prophetic ideas. As, however, these were to begin with only the initial ideas of a spiritual "remnant," the king's sympathies must needs be identified at heart, not with his imperious nobles and princes, but with a minority of the common people, whose religious faith did not become a recognizable influence in the state until after 701.
In the meantime his zeal for purer worship and more just domestic administration, which made him virtually king of the remnant, made him a wise and sagacious prince over the whole realm. Isaiah's glowing prophecy (Isaiah 32:1-8 ) seems to be a Messianic projection of the saner and clearer-seeing era that his domestic policy adumbrated - a time when king and nobles rule in righteousness, when man can lean on man, when things good and evil are seen as they are and called by their right names.
When it came to dealing with the foreign situation, however, especially according to the Isaianic program, his task was exceedingly difficult, as it were a pioneer venture in faith. His effort to maintain an attitude of steadfast trust in Yahweh, with the devout quietism which, though really its consistency and strength looked like a supine passivity, would lead his restlessly scheming nobles to regard him as a pious weakling; and not improbably they came to deem him almost a negligible quantity, and forced his hand into diplomacies and coalitions that were not to his mind. Some such insolent attitude of theirs seems to be portrayed in Isaiah 28:14-22 .
This was rendered all the more feasible, perhaps, by the period of incapacitation that must have attended his illness, in the very midst of the nation's critical affairs. Isaiah's words (Isaiah 33:17 ) may be an allusion at once to his essential kingliness, to the abeyance of its manifestation due to his disease, and to the constricted condition into which, meanwhile, the realm had fallen. This exceedingly critical episode of Hezekiah's career does not seem to have had its rights with students of the era.
Considering the trials that his patient faith must have had, always at cross-purposes with his nobles (compare Psalm 120:6 f); that now by reason of his sickness they had the whip hand; that his disease cut him off not only from hope of life, but from association with men and access to the sanctuary (compare Isaiah 38:10 , Isaiah 38:11 , Isaiah 38:12 ); that, as his son Manasseh was not born till three years within the fifteen now graciously added to his life (compare 2 Kings 21:1 ), his illness seemed to endanger the very perpetuity of the Davidic dynasty, we have reason for regarding him as well-nigh a martyr to the new spiritual uprising of faith which Isaiah was laboring to bring about. In the Messianic ideal which, in Isaiah's sublime conception, was rising into personal form, it fell to his lot to adumbrate the first kingly stage, the stage of committal to Yahweh's word and will and abiding the event. It was a cardinal element in that composite ideal which the Second Isaiah pushes to its ultimate in his portrayal of the servant of Yahweh; another element, the element of sacrifice, has yet to be added.
Meanwhile, as with the king so with his remnant-realm, the venture of faith is like a precipitation of spiritual vitality, or, as the prophet puts it, a new birth (compare Isaiah 26:17 f; Isaiah 37:3 ; Isaiah 66:7 f, for the stages of it). The event of deliverance, not by men's policies but by Yahweh's miraculous hand, was the speedy vindication of such trust; and the revulsion of the next decade witnessed a confirming and solidifying of spiritual integrity in the remnant which made it a factor to be reckoned with in the trying times that succeeded (see under MANASSEH ). The date of Hezekiah's death (probably not long after 690) is not certainly known; nor of the death of his mentor Isaiah (tradition puts this by martyrdom under Manasseh); but if our view of his closing years is correct, the king's death crowned a consistent character of strength and spiritual steadfastness; while the unapproachable greatness of Isaiah speaks for itself.
IV. Reflection of His Age in Literature
1. Complication and Revival
The sublime and mature utterances of Isaiah alone, falling in this time, are sufficient evidence that in Hezekiah's age, Israel reached its golden literary prime. Among the idealists and thinkers throughout the nation a new spiritual vigor and insight were awake. Of their fellowship was the king himself, who emulated the activity of his predecessor Solomon as patron of piety and letters.
The compilation of the later Solomonic section of the Proverbs (Proverbs 25 through 29), attributed to the "men of Hezekiah," indicates the value attached to the accumulations of the so-called Wisdom literature; and it is fair to assume that these men of Hezekiah did not stop with compiling, but stamped upon the body of Proverbs as a whole that sense of it as a philosophy of life which it henceforth bears, and perhaps added the introductory section, Proverbs 1 through 9. Nor would a king so zealous for the organization and enrichment of the temple-worship (compare Isaiah 38:20 ) be indifferent to its body of sacred song.
It seems certain that his was, in all the nation's history, the greatest single agency in compiling and adapting the older Davidic Psalms, and in the composition of new ones. Perhaps this union of collecting and creative work in psalmody is referred to in the mention of "the words of David, and of Asaph the seer" (2 Chronicles 29:30 ). To Hezekiah himself is attributed one "writing" which is virtually a psalm, Isaiah 38:20 .
The custom through all the history of hymnology (in our own day also) of adapting older compositions to new liturgical uses makes uncertain the identification of psalms belonging specifically to this period; still, many psalms of books ii and iii, and especially those ascribed to Asaph and the sons of Korah, seem a close reflection of the spirit of the times. An interesting theory recently advanced (see Thirtle, Old Testament Problems ) that the fifteen Songs of the Steps ("Degrees" or "Ascents," Psalms 120 through 134) are a memorial of Hezekiah's fifteen added years, when as a sign the shadow went backward on the steps of Ahaz (2 Kings 20:8-11 ), seems to reveal many remarkable echoes of that eventful time. Nor does it seem unlikely that with this first extensive collection of psalms the titles began to be added.
2. Of More Creative Strain
This literary activity of Hezekiah's time, though concerned largely with collecting and reviving the treasures of older literature, was pursued not in the cold scribal spirit, but in a fervid creative way. This may be realized in two of the psalms which the present writer ascribes to this period. Psalm 49 , a psalm of the sons of Korah, is concerned to make an essential tenet of Wisdom viable in song (compare Psalm 49:3 , Psalm 49:4 ), as if one of the "men of Hezekiah" who is busy with the Solomonic counsels would popularize the spirit of his findings. Ps 78 in like manner, a Maschil of Asaph, is concerned to make the noble histories of old viable in song (Psalm 78:2 ), especially the wilderness history when Israel received the law and beheld Yahweh's wonders, and down to the time when Ephraim was rejected and Judah, in the person of David, was chosen to the leadership in Israel.
Such a didactic poem would not stand solitary in a period so instructed. As in Wisdom and psalmody, so in the domain of law and its attendant history, the literary activity was vigorous. This age of Hezekiah seems the likeliest time for putting into literary idiom that "book of the law" found later in the Temple (2 Kings 22 ); which book Josiah's reforms, carried out according to its commands, prove to have been our Book of Deuteronomy. This is not the place to discuss the Deuteronomic problem (see under JOSIAH ); it is fair to note here, however, that as compared with the austere statement of the Mosaic statutes elsewhere, this book has a literary art and coloring which seem to stamp its style as that of a later age than Moses', though its substance is Mosaic; and this age of Hezekiah seems the likeliest time to put its rewriting and adaptation.
Nor did the new spirit of literary creation feed itself entirely on the past. The king's chastening experience of illness and trial, with the steadfast faith that upbore and survived it, must have been fruitful of new ideas, especially of that tremendous conception, now just entering into thought, of the ministry of suffering. Time, of course, must be allowed for the ripening of an idea so full of involvement; and it is long before its sacrificial and atoning values come to light in such utterances as Isaiah 53:1-12 . But such psalms as Ps 49 and Ps 73, not to mention Hezekiah's own psalm (Isa 38), show that the problem was a living one; it was working, moreover, in connection with the growing Wisdom philosophy, toward the composition of the Book of Job, which in a masterly way both subjects the current Wisdom motives to a searching test and vindicates the intrinsic integrity of the patriarch in a discipline of most extreme trial. The life of a king whose experience had some share in clarifying the ideas of such a book was not lived in vain.
IBSE (in the public domain) with minor edits.