The Bible is not a book of syrupy pieties.
It would never have survived these many centuries if it were not for its idiosyncratic qualities, one of which is a persistent and stark realism.
When Judah’s King Hezekiah steps as unlikely protagonist into the bridging portion of the book of Isaiah, where the main linkage between Judah’s anticipation of exile and eventual restoration from exile is established, he would not be mistaken as a spokesman for orthodox biblical faith. He simply is what he is, in all his glory and all his tragedy. For some readers, he stands in as an icon of the nation itself.
Regardless of how such details are settled, Isaiah’s depiction of his coming to terms with death bears a dismal tone. The sudden ordinariness of the images is striking.
I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord, the Lord in the land of the living; I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world. 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; I calmed myself until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones; from day to night you bring me to an end.
Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety! What shall I say? For he has spoken to me, and he himself has done it. I walk slowly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. (Isaiah 38:10–15 ESV)
The sufferer of long illness or one who has borne up under prolonged delay before death will not struggle to find her own experience in Hezekiah’s words.
Hezekiah cannot speak, in this moment, of legacy, of faith, of expectation. Rather, ‘from day to night’—unremarkably and without fuss—he imagines himself departing life as he has known it.
There is no more drama to the king’s expected demise that there is to a shepherd breaking camp for the next pasture over or a weaver wrapping things up at the end of his day.
Contemporary readers may find a certain thin comfort in the ordinariness of death. It is ‘just a part of life’, as we attempt to persuade ourselves.
Hezekiah does not see things so cheerily.