The story of Hezekiah’s illness and recovery is familiar to every child who has attended Sunday School. Informed that he would die, faithful King Hezekiah pleaded in tears for a longer life. God heard his prayers and saw his tears, and promised fifteen more years. As a sign that He would keep His promise, God made the shadow retreat ten steps (2 Kings 20:1-11).
Before this episode, however, Hezekiah had already received another sign, one that is less familiar. In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, Sennacherib of Assyria attacked the fort cities throughout Judah. Hezekiah gave him gold from the temple as a bribe. But Sennacherib was unsatisfied. He sent Rabshakeh and several others to Jerusalem to demand Hezekiah’s surrender. To intimidate the people of Jerusalem, Rabshakeh announced that the city was doomed, that the Lord would not be able to withstand the Assyrian armies (2 Kings 18:26-37).
The words of Rabshakeh were blasphemous, and when Hezekiah heard them, he tore his robe and went to the house of God to pray and to spread out a letter from Rabshakeh before the Lord. Through Isaiah, God revealed that He would deliver Jerusalem from the terrifying Assyrian army: “Because of your raging against Me, and because your arrogance has come up to My ears, Therefore I will put My hook in your nose, and My bridle in your lips, and I will turn you back by the way which you came” (2 Kings 19:28).
To confirm His promise, God gave a sign: “Then this shall be the sign for you: you shall eat this year what grows of itself, in the second year what springs from the same, and in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord shall perform this” (2 Kings 19:29-31). My purpose in this essay is to determine the meaning of this sign, and its relevance to Hezekiah’s circumstances.
There is some disagreement about the meaning of the sign. E. J. Young, commenting on the parallel passage in Isaiah 37, says that “the people had been hindered from carrying out the regular occupation of sowing, for the Assyrian was present in the land.” The Judahites were therefore compelled by circumstances to eat the saphiach, “what had been poured out or spilled accidentally and so springs up of itself.” Young admits that this interpretation has difficulty explaining why the Israelites would not be able to sow and reap in the second year, since Sennacherib apparently left the land in haste. He concludes, “Even though the humiliation of Sennacherib might take place very soon . . . the condition of devastation and suffering brought about by the Assyrian’s presence would continue for a time.” The sign boils down to this: God promises to sustain His people through the immediate crisis, and in the third year they would resume their normal eating, their normal course of life. (Young, The Book of Isaiah [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969] 2:498ff.)
Young mentions other scholars, however, who “have held that the year during which Isaiah spoke this prophecy was a sabbatical year, to be followed by the year of Jubilee.” Against this suggestion, Young argues that “there is no evidence that this was a sabbatical year” and “if Isaiah were speaking during a sabbatical year, he would simply be telling the people what they knew already.”
It is possible, however, to reconcile Young’s view with the one he dismisses. The context, Young rightly insists, forces us to connect the sign to the devastation of the invasion. But the circumstances imposed on Israel two de facto sabbatical years, during which the people would “have the sabbath of the land for food” (Lev. 25:6). This two-year sabbath occurs at the time of the Jubilee, the fiftieth year that follows the seventh sabbatical year.
If we take the sign in this sense, fresh light is shed on the following verses. Isaiah’s immediate concern in verses 30-31 is that the people who survive Sennacherib’s invasion will again take root and produce fruit. That this is the immediate concern is indicated by the language of verse 31: Isaiah prophesies that the people would return again to the land “out of Jerusalem” and “out of Mount Zion,” where they had found shelter during the Assyrian raid.
Yet, it is difficult to read verses 30-31 without being reminded of the return of Israel from exile. The reign of Hezekiah overlaps with the reign of Hoshea, the last King of the Northern Kingdom. Thus, the threat of Assyrian conquest and exile is part of the background of Hezekiah’s reign. Moreover, the word “remnant” is used, as it is in many of the prophecies of the return (e.g., Is. 10:20-22). Isaiah uses the imagery of replanting, imagery that is used elsewhere to describe the post-exilic community (e.g., Ezk. 17). The connection of Hezekiah’s sign to the return from exile is strengthened when we understand the sign in sabbatical terms. Jeremiah prophesied that the Judahites would remain in exile for 70 years, until the land had been given rest (Jer. 25:11-12; 2 Chron. 36:21). Thus the pattern is the same in both events: God replants His people after forcing them to observe His sabbaths.
If we are to understand the double-sabbath year as a reference to the Jubilee, the links between Hezekiah’s sign and the return from exile are strengthened. The Jubilee year was the year of return to ancestral land, and makes a fitting symbol of Israel’s return to their inheritance.
In this way, the sign to Hezekiah, without diminishing in its immediate relevance to Hezekiah himself, is transfigured into a prophecy of the New Exodus, the return from Babylon. So also, it is transfigured into a prophecy of the coming of the New Covenant. Christ was raised on the third day, the firstfruits of the new creation. He plants us in a heavenly land, permits us to eat the fruit of the vine, and enables us to bear fruit a hundredfold. He announces and inaugurates “the favorable year of the Lord.” Having clothed His disciples with power from above, Jesus then sends them from Jerusalem into the uttermost parts of the earth.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.