Blessing in Sickness
Some Scripture passages simply take our breath away. The gospel is precious however it is expressed, but not all sentences are made equal. Romans 8’s statements are beloved for its content—the truth that nothing can separate the believer from God’s love—yet the way that truth is expressed packs a most powerful punch:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35-37).
The same is true of Isaiah 38:17:
“Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.”
God will not look upon our sins. We keep record of wrongs done to us, letting them bubble back up again and again instead of forgiving fully. But God casts our sins behind him – he will not see them again. It is finished. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Isaiah 38:17 expresses the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ gloriously.
Equally profound, however, is the first sentence in Isaiah 38:17: “Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness…” Hezekiah, king of Judah during Isaiah’s ministry, fell terminally ill, was granted a reprieve from the LORD, and meditated here on his sickness and deliverance. Startlingly, he says it was for his good that he suffered.
Hezekiah’s reflection is not unique. Psalm 119, for example, expresses a similar sentiment three times:
- Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.”
- Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”
- Psalm 119:75: “I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”
These words are hard to fathom in our “live your best life now” era. How can anyone say this? Although Hezekiah does not provide a list of how it was to his welfare that he experienced great bitterness, the text itself suggests several benefits.
Sickness Makes Us Pray
The first thing Hezekiah does upon receiving the prophet’s prognosis is pray:
“In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.’ Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD…” (Isa. 38:1-2)
Hezekiah was under the sentence of death. Much later, the Apostle Paul would declare that feeling as though “under the sentence of death” was good for him too, for “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
While the message of Isaiah 38 certainly stands far from “dare to be a Hezekiah,” it does tell us something true about believers and, significantly, about our God. The LORD reveals himself in his response: “Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father, I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life.” (Isa. 38:5).
We pray in affliction knowing that God hears our prayers and groans. He sees our tears. He knows everything about us, and the Bible specifically points out that we have a sympathetic Savior, Jesus Christ. As Hagar said in Genesis 16:13, “‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.’”
The LORD not only heard, but he acted. To assure Hezekiah that he would live another fifteen years, God gave a sign. He turned back the shadow of a sundial (verse 8), a miracle that attracted a Babylonian delegation, echoing the days of Solomon when the nations came to him (2 Chron. 32:31; 1 Kings 10; 4:34). God gave Hezekiah a sign in his affliction that he, the LORD, held power over time, and likewise, he gives us signs like the Lord’s Supper for the same reason – to assure us “that the LORD will do this thing that he has promised.” This God was further manifested when Jesus showed Thomas the marks in his hands to assure that he was the resurrected Christ.
When we are afflicted, we pray and seek the means of grace, where we are reminded that our God holds our lives in his hands and he can do miracles. Hezekiah not only had the sign, but he had the Word of God, through the prophet Isaiah, who declared God’s will.
Sickness Shows Our Vulnerability
Trials that are beyond our ability to control not only bring us to our knees in prayer, they also show us the brevity of life. As Isaiah will emphasize in this section, all flesh is like grass, its beauty here today, and gone tomorrow (40:6).
Facing death, life’s shortness became all too clear to Hezekiah. He had thought, “My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd's tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom; from day to night you bring me to an end” (Isa. 38:12).
Sickness should challenge each of us, and particularly those who are not believers: your life is short, and beyond your control. To use Hezekiah’s images, your life is like a tent that can be picked up and moved, or a thread that can be wrapped up or cut off. As Sennacherib found out, even the highest kings are not safe from sudden death (Isa. 37:37-38). Will you be ready for such a time?
Isaiah had warned Hezekiah: “Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover” (Isa. 38:1). Affliction, and particularly sickness, makes us consider that critical question: Is my soul set “in order” to meet my Maker? This is far weightier than having funeral arrangements and wills prepared. Hezekiah says it this way in verse 16: “Sovereign One, it is in respect of these things people should live” – in other words, people should consider life and death, life’s fragility and transitory nature.
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, your soul is set in order:
- “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…’” (John 11:25)
- “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).
- “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Sickness Reminds Us What Matters Most
Believers have courage and confidence even in sickness that whenever death does come, they will be raised to glory with Christ. This not only gives great peace in facing the prospect of death, it moves your heart and loosens your tongue to praise the LORD. It made Hezekiah consider man’s chief end: To glorify God and enjoy him forever. Hezekiah pointed this out in verses 18-20:
“For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness. The LORD will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD.”
Rather than teaching annihilationism, “His words are deeper and more penetrating. He is concerned with the question of one’s sins depriving him of the privilege of praising God.” Hezekiah rejoices that his life is prolonged that he might praise God in this world. This is where deliverance leads: To doxology and discipleship. Even the manner with which believers endure sickness can be a testimony to the world of our God’s power.
And so, in light of the courage that believers can have when sick and facing death, we are each challenged. What will we learn from affliction? Do we have a hope that will keep us grounded and steadfast during sickness?
After all, illness should not be taken as a sign of God’s abandonment. We remember Lazarus – Jesus was sent news, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." Lazarus was loved by Jesus, yet his sickness was to display the glory of God and show that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. None of us has complete power over sickness; and Hezekiah reminds us that kings are vulnerable just as we are.
We may ask, "What spiritual lessons should I learn from affliction, whether sickness or not?" J.C. Ryle suggests several: sickness reminds men of death; sickness helps to make men think seriously of God; sickness helps to soften men’s hearts; sickness helps to level and humble us; and sickness helps to try men’s religion. He concludes,
"I believe that…sickness is one of the greatest aids to the minister of the gospel, and that sermons and counsels are often brought home in the day of disease which we have neglected in the day of heath. I believe that sickness is one of God’s most important subordinate instruments in the saving of men…In short, I believe firmly that the sickness of men’s bodies has often led, in God’s wonderful providence, to the salvation of men’s souls."
Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA.
Man the Sinner, Man the Saint
Watch the 2020 Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology, live-streamed on the Facebook and YouTube November 13-14. There is no cost to attend, and no registration is required
Podcast: "The End of the Christian Life"
"Upon a Fit of Sickness" by Ben Ciavolella
"Finding Gratitude in Unlikely Places" by Pierce Taylor Hibbs
The Gospel Pure and Simple, with Sinclair Ferguson, Liam Goligher, and Mark Johnston
 The thought of death made Hezekiah “bitter in soul” (v15). He needed to calm himself at night to sleep. He was like a bird chirping in agony; the despair is bone-crushing. It is as if he is crippled by this (v15b). However, lest we make this all about Hezekiah’s existential agony, we should remember that at this time he had no heir as the Davidic king--at stake is not just Hezekiah’s death, but David’s line.
 On this translation, see Alec Motyer, Isaiah by the Day (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2014), 182. This verse and its translation are debated. The other way to take the verse would be as a reference to God’s Word—with respect to it, people live—which gets us to just about the same principle. See E.J. Young, Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 2.524.
 E.J. Young, Isaiah, 2.527.
 See Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 “Sickness” in J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1878, reprinted 2013), 339-41.