(an outtake from Once More, From the Beginning. This is one of the bits that didn’t make it into the book.)
God sent the prophet Isaiah to King Hezekiah with a warning.
“Don’t get too complacent, because God intends that the people of Judah be carried into captivity in Babylon like the Israelites were,” he announced, “. . . just not right now.” He must have felt that the king was not sufficiently upset about this, because he added, “. . . and another bit of bad news . . . brace yourself . . . I hear that all the prettiest of the royal princes will be neatly altered to serve the Assyrian monarchy as eunuchs!”
This historically significant prophesy gained Isaiah a modest level of fame among the upper classes and, hoping to build on this, he came eagerly running some time later when King Hezekiah became seriously ill.
“I wanted to be the first to tell you,” he beamed, “You need to start thinking about gathering your family together and getting your affairs in order…any special funeral arrangements, that sort of thing.”
“You don’t mean . . . .” gasped the king.
“Oh, yes! You’re definitely going to die…and soon.”
A more worldly prophet would have realized that this was bound to be received as very bad news indeed.
“No fair!” Hezekiah wailed, directing his comments in the general direction of heaven. “What’s the point being a faithful and righteous servant of The Lord, if I’m only to have my life cut unseasonably short as if I’d been any common sinner?”
In fact, Hezekiah sent up such a whimper over it that God finally decided heaven would be more comfortable without him for a while, and promised to extend his life by another fifteen years, give or take a few days. (Things of this sort are rarely very exact)
Isaiah was given the honour of conveying this decision reversal to the king. Naturally, he felt that this would compromise his reputation for accurate prophesy a bit – people just didn’t understand that God had a habit of changing his mind from time to time – but with as good grace as possible, he told Hezekiah the good news.
“It turns out you’re not going to die after all, so you can get out of bed any time now. God has decided you can have another fifteen years or so.”
The king was understandably shaken by his close call. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure! What do you want? A guarantee?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, a sign would be nice . . . something to show that he’ll keep his promise.”
Isaiah was pleased at this opportunity to reinforce his position as Prophet to the Monarchy. “Okay,” he agreed, “but just this once. Watch closely!”
With God’s help, of course, and an appropriately impressive flourish, he turned back time – a full ten degrees on the sun dial. This was undeniably a handy trick and helped to put the king’s mind at ease, but one would think that Isaiah’s influence with The Lord could have been put to better use.
In fact, the giddy Hezekiah used the bonus minutes to brag about his wealth to a group of Babylonian envoys that were in town at the time on some sort of official business and looking for an entertaining way to spend their free time. He ushered them through the palace, flaunting his treasures before their somewhat jaded eyes, and was naively flattered when he noticed that they were taking meticulous notes. When Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians, these hastily jotted crib notes would enable the conquerors to carry away every last treasure to Babylon. They didn’t miss a thing. But Hezekiah was dead by then, and past regretting the price of his vanity.