Friday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 38:1-6,21-22,7-8

(Note that the verse numbering for today’s reading is read as a continuous text where vv 21-22 follow vv 1-6 and are then both followed by vv 7-8.)

Today we have the story of a good man who faithfully followed God’s will. It is our last reading from this part of the Book of Isaiah. The other parts of the book will be read at other times in the liturgical cycle.

The story told today seems to have taken place some time before the Assyrian invasion by Sennacherib in 701 BC.  Isaiah plays a central role in the king’s dialogue with God. It begins by the prophet telling the king, who is terminally ill, that it is time for him to put his affairs in order for his approaching death.  The prophet Elisha similarly predicted the death of the Syrian king, Ben-Hadad (2 Kings 8:9-10).

The king turned his face to the wall (not of his bedroom but more probably of the Temple) God’s dwelling house, and prayed that God would remember the good things he had done in the service of Yahweh during his life.  Among a line of kings who were steeped in idolatry and immorality, Hezekiah stood out for his goodness.

It is possible, too, that he had has yet no son or successor to take over from him and so he wept bitterly.  To think that he was going to die without an heir was perhaps the greatest pain of what seemed a terminal illness.

But his prayer clearly pleased the Lord, for Isaiah was sent with the good news that Hezekiah would be cured and in three days’ time would be able to go up to the Temple.  More than that, he was promised that another 15 years would be added to his life, and that Jerusalem would be protected from the Assyrian king.  (We saw in yesterday’s reading how Sennacherib’s army, about to lay siege to Jerusalem, was decimated by a plague which killed more than 180,000 soldiers and thus forced Sennacherib to withdraw.)

Finally, Isaiah ordered that a poultice of figs be applied by the court physicians so that the king could recover from an illness that was originally (v1) believed to be terminal.  Figs were often used for medicinal purposes. Hezekiah, for his part, asked for some sign to confirm that he would be healed and that he would be able to go to the Temple and make a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  It is not clear what sign he was requesting, but it might simply have been the healing of what is described as a “boil”.

His request was granted and the sign promised was that the setting sun would go back by ten steps, as indicated by its shadow on the “dial of Ahaz”.  The meaning is not clear, though the phrase likely refers to a sundial. In any case the promised sign took place.  It may have been a miracle or it may simply have been caused by the refraction of light.

Here we see how a good man approaches the news of his death.  His main concern is that God should be aware of the kind of life he had led.  At first he does not ask to be healed, rather that he experience final salvation with God.  God then gives him what he had not actually asked for, namely, that he be healed and many more years of life be given to him.  This is his reward for his fidelity to Yahweh during his reign.

When we are confronted with serious sickness, our own or that of people close to us, we too need that kind of attitude that accepts fully what God wills for us at this time.  Perhaps it is the end of our time and earth, and we have to bid farewell to it and go forth to meet our God face to face.  Or it may be that our time has not yet come and we will be called to live on, either totally or partially healed, for some time to come.  In that case, our healing is a call for us to greater service of God and our neighbour.  It is also an opportunity to re-orientate our lives where that is necessary.  Strange to say, a spell in hospital is not infrequently a grace-filled time to reflect on the meaning and direction of one’s life…perhaps even better than a retreat!

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