Dial of Ahaz
1. Hezekiah's Sickness and the Sign
2. The Sign a Real Miracle
3. The "Dial" a Staircase
4. Time of Day of the Miracle
5. Hezekiah's Choice of the Sign
6. Meaning of the Sign
7. The Fifteen "Songs of Degrees"
1. Hezekiah's Sickness and the Sign:
One of the most striking instances recorded in Holy Scripture of the interruption, or rather reversal, of the working of a natural law is the going back of the shadow on the dial of Ahaz at the time of Hezekiah's recovery from his illness. The record of the incident is as follows. Isaiah was sent to Hezekiah in his sickness, to say:
"Thus saith Yahweh, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee; on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of Yahweh. .... And Hezekiah said unto Isaiah, What shall be the sign that Yahweh will heal me, and that I shall go up unto the house of Yahweh the third day? And Isaiah said, This shall be the sign unto thee from Yahweh, that Yahweh will do the thing that he hath spoken: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps? And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to decline ten steps: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten steps. And Isaiah the prophet cried unto Yahweh; and he brought the shadow ten steps backward, by which it had gone down on the dial of Ahaz" (2Ki 20:5-11). And in Isa 38:8, it is said, "Behold, I will cause the shadow on the steps, which is gone down on the dial of Ahaz with the sun, to return backward ten steps. So the sun returned ten steps on the dial whereon it was gone down."
2. The Sign a Real Miracle:
The first and essential point to be noted is that this was no ordinary astronomical phenomenon, nor was it the result of ordinary astronomical laws then unknown. It was peculiar to that particular place, and to that particular time; otherwise we should not read of "the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent .... to inquire of the wonder that was done in the land" (2Ch 32:31). It is impossible, therefore, to accept the suggestion that the dial of Ahaz may have been improperly constructed, so as to produce a reversal of the motion of the shadow at certain times. For such a maladjustment would have occasioned the repetition of the phenomenon every time the sun returned to the same position with respect to the dial. The narrative, in fact, informs us that the occurrence was not due to any natural law, known or unknown, since Hezekiah was given the choice and exercised it of his own free will, as to whether a shadow should move in a particular direction or in the opposite. But there are no alternative results in the working of a natural law. "If a state of things is repeated in every detail, it must lead to exactly the same consequences." The same natural law cannot indifferently produce one result, or its opposite. The movement of the shadow on the dial of Ahaz was, therefore, a miracle in the strict sense of the term. It cannot be explained by the working of any astronomical law, known or unknown. We have no information as to the astronomical conditions at the time; we can only inquire into the setting of the miracle.
3. The "Dial" a Staircase:
It is unfortunate that one important word in the narrative has been rendered in both the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) by a term which describes a recognized astronomical instrument. The word "dial" (ma'aloth) is usually translated "degrees," "steps," or "stairs," and indeed is thus rendered in the same verse. There is no evidence that the structure referred to had been designed to serve as a dial or was anything other than a staircase, "the staircase of Ahaz." It was probably connected with that "covered way for the sabbath that they had built in the house, and the king's entry without," which Ahaz turned "round the house of Yahweh, because of the king of Assyria" (2Ki 16:18 the Revised Version, margin). This staircase, called after Ahaz because the alteration was due to him, may have been substituted for David's "causeway that goeth up," which was "westward, by the gate of Shallecheth" (1Ch 26:16), or more probably for Solomon's "ascent by which he went up unto the house of Yahweh" which so impressed the queen of Sheba (2Ch 9:4).
4. Time of Day of the Miracle:
At certain times of the day the shadow of some object fell upon this staircase, and we learn from both 2 Ki and Isa that this shadow had already gone down ten steps, while from Isa we learn in addition that the sun also was going down. The miracle therefore took place in the afternoon, when the sun moves on its downward course, and when all shadows are thrown in an easterly direction. We are not told what was the object that cast the shadow, but it must have stood to the west of the staircase, and the top of the staircase must have passed into the shadow first, and the foot of the staircase have remained longest in the light. The royal palace is understood to have been placed southeast of the Temple, and it is therefore probable that it was some part of the Temple buildings that had cast its shadow down the stairway in full view of the dying king, as he lay in his chamber. If the afternoon were well advanced the sun would be moving rapidly in altitude, and but little in azimuth; or, in other words, the shadow would be advancing down the steps at its quickest rate, but be moving only slowly toward the left of those who were mounting them. It may well have been the case, therefore, that the time had come when the priests from Ophel, and the officials and courtiers from the palace, were going up the ascent into the house of the Lord to be present at the evening sacrifice; passing from the bright sunshine at the foot of the stairs into the shadow that had already fallen upon the upper steps. The sun would be going straight down behind the buildings and the steps already in shadow would sink into deeper shadow, not to emerge again into the light until a new day's sun had arisen upon the earth.
5. Hezekiah's Choice of the Sign:
We can therefore understand the nature of the choice of the sign that was offered by the prophet to the dying king. Would he choose that ten more steps should be straight-way engulfed in the shadow, or that ten steps already shadowed should be brought back into the light? Either might serve as a sign that he should arise on the third day and go up in renewed life to the house of the Lord; but the one sign would be in accordance with the natural progress of events, and the other would be directly opposed to it. It would be a light thing, as Hezekiah said, for the shadow to go forward ten steps; a bank of cloud rising behind the Temple would effect that change. But no disposition of cloud could bring the shadow back from that part of the staircase which had already passed into it, and restore it to the sunshine. The first change was, in human estimation, easily possible, "a light thing"; the second change seemed impossible. Hezekiah chose the seemingly impossible, and the Lord gave the sign and answered his prayer. We need not ask Whether the king showed more or less faith in choosing the "impossible" rather than the "possible" sign. His father Ahaz had shown his want of faith by refusing to put the Lord to the test, by refusing to ask a sign, whether in the heaven above or in the earth beneath. The faith of Hezekiah was shown in asking a sign, which was at once in the heaven above and in the earth beneath, in accepting the choice offered to him, and so putting the Lord to the test. And the sign chosen was most fitting, Hezekiah lay dying, whether of plague or of cancer we do not know, but his disease was mortal and beyond cure; he was already entering into the shadow of death. The word of the Lord was sure to him; on "the third day" he would rise and go up in new life to the house of God.
6. Meaning of the Sign:
But what of the sign? Should the shadow of death swallow him up; should his life be swiftly cut off in darkness, and be hidden until a new day should dawn, and the light of a new life, a life of resurrection, arise? (Compare Joh 11:24.) Or should the shadow be drawn back swiftly, and new years be added to his life before death could come upon him? Swift death was in the natural progress of events; restoration to health was of the impossible. He chose the restoration to health, and the Lord answered his faith and his prayer.
We are not able to go further into particulars. The first temple, the royal palace, and the staircase of Ahaz were all destroyed in the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and we have no means of ascertaining the exact position of the staircase with respect to Temple or palace, or the number of the steps that it contained, or the time of the day, or the season of the year when the sign was given. It is possible that if we knew any or all of these, a yet greater significance, both spiritual and astronomical, might attach to the narrative.
7. The Fifteen "Songs of Degrees":
Fifteen years were added to the life of Hezekiah. In the restoration of the second temple by Herod fifteen steps led from the Court of the Women to the Court of Israel, and on these steps the Levites during the Feast of Tabernacles were accustomed to stand in order to sing the fifteen "songs of degrees" (Ps 120:1-7 through Ps 134:1-3). At the head of these same steps in the gateway, lepers who had been cleansed from their disease presented themselves to the priests. It has been suggested that Hezekiah himself was the compiler of these fifteen "songs of the steps," in thankfulness for his fifteen years of added life. Five of them are ascribed to David or as written for Solomon, but the remaining ten bear no author's name. Their subjects are, however, most appropriate to the great crises and desires of Hezekiah's life. His great Passover, to which all the tribes were invited, and so many Israelites came; the blasphemy of Rabshakeh and of Sennacherib's threatening letter; the danger of the Assyrian invasion and the deliverance from it; Hezekiah's sickness unto death and his miraculous restoration to health; and the fact that at that time he would seem to have had no son to follow him on the throne--all these subjects seem to find fitting expression in the fifteen Psalms of the Steps.
E. W. Maunder