Chizkiyahu's Monarchy in Jerusalem (III): The Character of Chizkiyahu (II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Rav Yitzchak Levi



               In the previous shiur we dealt with the similarity between the works of Chizkiyahu and the actions of David and Shelomo, and with the relationship between Chizkiyahu and the prophet Yishayahu. In this shiur we will further discuss the personality of Chizkiyahu and Chazal's attitude toward him. In conclusion we will attempt to clarify why it was precisely in the days of Chizkiyahu that calamity arrived.




1.      The positive elements in CHizkiyahu's works


Chizkiyahu begins his reign on a very positive footing: He rededicates the house of God and abolishes idol worship; he observes Pesach together with the survivors of the Kingdom of Israel; and he establishes a project of committing the Torah and wisdom literature to writing.


Removal of the bamot and abolition of idol worship clearly played an important role in the book of Melakhim's very positive assessment of Chizkiyahu:


And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the asheira, and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moshe had made. For until that time the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nechustan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Yehuda, nor among those that were before him. For he held fast to the Lord, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments, which the Lord commanded Moshe. And the Lord was with him; and he prospered wherever he went out. (II Melakhim 18:3-7)


               This is not surprising in light of the book of Melakhim's fixed practice of judging the kings on the issue of the bamot. Scripture describes the works of a particular king, and then adds: "Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away; for the people still offered and burnt incense in the high places" (see, for example, what is stated about Yehoshafat [I Melakhim 22:44], Amatzyahu [II Melakhim 14:4], and Uziyahu [ibid. 15:4]). From the time of Shelomo and until the days of Chizkiyahu, the kings allowed the bamot that were used in the worship of God to stand, and failed to enforce the prohibition of such service which took effect with the establishment of the Mikdash. Chizkiyahu is the first king[1] to initiate the removal of the bamot throughout Yehuda, an operation that apparently required considerable royal effort and much resolve in light of the importance that the people attached to such worship.[2]


               The verses that we cited above note four ritual elements that Chizkiyahu destroyed: removing the bamot, breaking the pillars, cutting down the asheira, and breaking in pieces the brazen serpent that had been fashioned by Moshe. Regarding the brazen serpent, Chazal said:


When Israel sinned, He sent against them venomous serpents. When they shouted at Moshe, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "Make you a venomous serpent… And Moshe made a serpent of brass…" (Bamidbar 21:8-9). And thus stood the brazen serpent. Whenever a person was bitten, he would look at it and be healed. Until Chizkiyahu stood up and saw that Israel was straying after it. He said: Now, anyone in need of heeling goes to it and forsakes the Holy One, blessed be He. He removed it, as it says: "And he broke in pieces the brazen serpent" (II Melakhim 18:4). The people began to say: What are you doing? That which Moshe established, you destroy? He said to them: Whoever is in need of healing should look towards the Holy One, blessed be He, and be healed. As it says: "They looked to him, and are radiant: and their faces shall not be ashamed" (Tehillim 34:6). And so it says: "He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him" (II Melakhim 18:5). (Aggadat Bereishit, 11)


               The brazen serpent – which was intended, as in the words of the famous Mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 3:8), to cause Israel to subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven – turned into an object of worship in its own right. Chizkiyahu decided, therefore, to break it into pieces, courageously standing up to the argument: "That which Moshe established, you destroy?"


               As with respect to the bamot, he was also the first to destroy the brazen serpent. Chazal said as follows:


Is it possible that Asa came and did not destroy it, [or] that Yehoshafat came and did not destroy it? Surely Asa and Yehoshafat destroyed all the idol worship in the world? Rather, [Chizkiyahu's] predecessors left room for him to distinguish himself. (Chullin 6b-7a)


               Another context in which Chizkiyahu's devotion to God is evident is his prayers. In several places we find Chizkiyahu engaged in prayer:


·                      Already at the beginning of his reign it is related that he prayed for the pardon of the people who ate of the Korban Pesach "otherwise than it was written" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 30:18).

·                      In the wake of the words of Ravshake and the emissaries of Sancheriv, Chizkiyahu offers a prayer in the house of God, in which he emphasizes God's sovereignty over the entire world and beseeches for deliverance, so that "all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God, even You only" (see II Melakhim 19:15-19).

·                      During his illness, Chizkiyahu prays to God, "I beseech You, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before You in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Your sight," and he weeps bitterly (II Melakhim 20:2-3).

·                      When he recovers from his illness, Chizkiyahu writes an emotional prayer, "the writing of Chizkiyahu king of Yehuda," which ends with the words: "The Lord was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord" (Yishayahu 38:9-20).


We see then that prayer constitutes an important component of Chizkiyahu's worship of God, and this testifies to his strong connection to Him.


In conclusion, let us note another positive characteristic of Chizkiyahuhis attitude toward the prophet. In the previous shiur we expanded on the relationship between Chizkiyahu and Yishayahu and noted its complexities and twists. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that Chizkiyahu appears to have been closely connected to the prophet even before he ascended to the throne, and this greatly impacted on his actions at the beginning of his reign. While it is true that later he turned to the prophet of his own initiative on only one occasion, he seems to have related seriously to what he said and greatly respected him. (It stands to reason that Shevna's removal was a direct result of Yishayahu's prophecy.)


2.                THe Negative elements in Chizkiyahu's works


In the previous lessons, we dealt at length and in great detail with various problematic aspects of Chizkiyahu's work: the rebellion against Assyria and the alliance with Egypt; his submitting to the King of Assyria when he invaded Yehuda, cutting off the doors to the house of God and using its treasures to pay the tribute; his arrogance; his attitude toward the Babylonian delegation; and the spiritual, social and moral state of Jerusalem. In addition to the severe ramifications that it had for his relationship with God, Chizkiyahu's decision to invest himself in a military alliance placed a heavy burden on the people and allowed various officers, Shevna among them, to act in a most corrupt manner and sink Jerusalem almost to the level of Sodom. Thus, the king failed in his mission to establish the kingdom on justice and judgment. The common denominator of all these problems is the king's viewing his kingdom as an independent entity, in which the king acts in accordance with his own outlook, without regard for the prophet or for the word of God on his lips, and only expresses his connection to God and the prophet in times of crisis, when he has no practical solution of his own. The issue of the connection between king of flesh and blood and the King, King of kings, stands out prominently throughout the period of Chizkiyahu's reign (here too there is a similarity between Chizkiyahu and Shelomo).


II.                Chazal's understanding of Chizkiyahu


Chazal relate in various places to Chizkiyahu's personality and actions. We shall cite here only two such discussions that deal with seven of Chizkiyahu's actions, some of which are mentioned in Scripture, and some of which were known to Chazal by tradition. Thus we learn in Tractate Pesachim:


King Chizkiyahu did six things: concerning three of them [the Sages] agreed with him, and concerning three of them, they did not agree with him.

He dragged his father's bones on a litter of ropes, and they agreed with him; he broke in pieces the brazen serpent, and they agreed with him; he concealed the book of remedies, and they agreed with him.

Concerning three things, they did not agree with him: he cut off the doors of the sanctuary and sent them to the King of Assyria, and they did not agree with him; he stopped up the upper watercourse of the Gichon, and they did not agree with him; he proclaimed a leap year in Nissan, and they did not agree with him. (Pesachim 4:9)


               A different formulation is found in Avot de-Rabbi Natan:


Yechizkiyahu, King of Yehuda, did four things, and his opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God: He concealed the book of remedies, and his opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God; he broke into pieces the brazen serpent, and his opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God, as it is stated: "For until that time the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nechushtan" (II Melakhim 18:4); he removed the bamot and the altars, and his opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God, as it is stated: "Has not Yechizkiyahu taken away his high places and his altars, and commanded Yehuda and Jerusalem, saying, You shall worship before one altar, and burn incense upon it?" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 32:12); he stopped up the watercourse of the Gichon, and his opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God, as it is stated: "The same Yechizkiyahu also stopped up the upper watercourse of Gichon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the City of David. And Yechizkiyahu prospered in all his works" (ibid. v. 30). (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 2:4)


               In addition to the difference between the formulation "they [the Sages] agreed with him" and the formulation "his opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God," the two sources differ on a number of points: The Mishna in Pesachim mentions six of Chizkiyahu's actions, whereas Avot de-Rabbi Natan lists only four, one of which was not mentioned in Pesachim (the removal of the bamot and the altars); in Pesachim there is both criticism and praise, whereas in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, there is only praise; and the two sources differ in their respective assessments of Chizkiyahu's stopping up of the Gichon watercourse.


               Let us examine in detail each of the seven actions mentioned in these two sources.


1.                He dragged his father's bones on a litter of ropes


This incident is mentioned only in the Mishna in Pesachim, and not in Avot de-Rabbi Natan. We already (in shiur no. 17) discussed the significance of this act as a negation of the kingdom of Achaz with all its evils: idol worship, worship of the Molekh, sealing of the Torah, and denial of prophecy. As Rashi explains:


He dragged his father's bones – for atonement, and [therefore] he did not provide him with an honorable burial on a handsome bier, and in order to sanctify God's name, that [Achaz] be disgraced for his wickedness and the wicked be reprimanded. (Rashi, Pesachim 56a)


2.                He cut into pieces the brazen serpent


The destruction of the brazen serpent is mentioned favorably both in the Mishna in Pesachim and in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, and we have already discussed the issue above.




This too is mentioned in the two sources, and also in the Gemara in Berakhot:


"Remember now how I have walked before You in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Your sight" (Yishayahu 38:3). What is, "And have done that which is good in Your sight"?… Rabbi Levi said: He concealed the book of remedies. (Berakhot 10b)


               We find two understandings of the incident involving the book of remedies. According to one understanding, the reference is to a book explaining the healing qualities of medicinal herbs which Chizkiyahu concealed so that people would turn to God and put their trust in him – rather than in the book (see Rashi, ad loc., and in Pesachim 56a; Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, chap. 30). According to a second understanding, it is forbidden to conceal a medical text based on natural remedies, and Chizkiyahu concealed a book containing remedies based on astrology or other forbidden practices after people had begun to make practical use of the text (see Rambam's commentary to the Mishna, Pesachim, ad loc.).


               The common denominator between the destruction of the brazen serpent and the concealment of the book of remedies is that the aim of both was to lead to direct trust in God, unmediated by external elements to which independent power, removed from God, could erroneously be attributed.


4.                He removed the Bamot and altars


As stated above, this accomplishment is mentioned only in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, and we already discussed its novel and far-reaching significance. Here too Chizkiyahu strengthened the people's faith and trust in God.




               On this matter, we must reconcile the contradiction between the Mishna in Pesachim, according to which the Sages did not approve of Chizkiyahu's action, and the Baraita in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, according to which here too Chizkiyahu's opinion turned out to be in agreement with that of God.


It is possible that the Mishna in Pesachim views this action, which was intended to withhold water from the soldiers of the Assyrian army should they lay siege on Jerusalem, as an expression of lack of confidence in the words of the prophet, "For I will defend this city, to save it, for My own sake, and for My servant David's sake" (II Melakhim 19:34);[3][3] according to this understanding, had the king trusted in God, he would not have had to adopt military actions of this sort. The Baraita in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, in contrast, maintains that Chizkiyahu acted appropriately, for the adoption of practical defensive measures does not contradict trust in God.


Another way to resolve the difficulty is by distinguishing between the time-frame being addressed by each of the two sources: Avot de-Rabbi Natan relates to an early stage of the campaign, even before the alliance with Egypt had been established, whereas the Mishna in Pesachim relates to the situation following the establishment of that alliance, when that action clearly reflected a lack of trust in God which found expression in reliance on a foreign power.


6.      Cutting off the doors of the sanctuary and sending them to the king of assyria


The severity of the act is clear: in his search for funds with which to pay the enormous levy cast upon him by the King of Assyria after the conquest of Yehuda, Chizkiyahu cuts off the doors of the Temple and the pilasters which he himself had overlaid with gold (II Melakhim 18:13-16).


Overlaying the doors of the sanctuary and the pilasters was a great repair for the actions of Achaz. Sending the silver and gold from the Temple to the King of Assyria (ibid. 16:8) and later cutting the Temple vessels and making changes in the structure of the Temple, and in the end closing it "because of the King of Assyria" (ibid. 17-18; II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:21, 24) (while it does not state explicitly that Achaz cut off the doors of the sanctuary, this is implied by the fact that Chizkiyahu had to plate them). But now Chizkiyahu resembles his father Achaz, and he goes back on his original plan – repairing and rededicating the Temple.


Moreover, this action symbolically represents a more general problem in Chizkiyahu's reign, which we already noted both with respect to the relationship between the beginning of Chizkiyahu's reign and his later reign, and with respect to the relationship between his kingdom and the kingdom of God in general. Cutting off the doors of the Temple means using part of the structure of God's house in order to subjugate himself to the King of Assyria and pay him tribute: Chizkiyahu, as it were, mortgaged the place of God's reign to the King of Assyria in order to allow himself to continue to rule.


7.      He proclaimed a leap year in Nissan


After having cleansed the Temple of impurity and idol worship at the beginning of his reign, Chizkiyahu decides, out of a desire to allow the Kingdom of Israel to participate in the renewal of the covenant with God, to push Pesach off. Scripture provides two rationales for the postponement (the numbering is mine; Y.L.):


For the king had taken counsel, and his princes, and all the congregation of Jerusalem, to keep Pesach in the second month. For they could not keep it in its time, (1) because the priests had not sanctified themselves sufficiently, (2) nor had the people gathered themselves together to Jerusalem. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 30:2-3)


               Chizkiyahu's efforts yielded fruits, and a great multitude of people assembled in Jerusalem (ibid. v. 13). However, despite the important reasons for postponing Pesach and declaring a leap year, and despite the success in bringing such a large number of people to bring the paschal offering, Chazal criticized Chizkiyahu for having proclaimed a leap year when it was already Nissan, rather than in Adar – against the laws of intercalation of months – and did not agree with him on the matter.


III.             Why did the calamity come specifically in the days of Chizkiyahu?


Without a doubt, Achaz was a most problematic figure in all respects. As it may be remembered, Achaz introduced idol worship into the Temple, he cut himself off from prophecy, he sealed the Torah, he worshipped the Molekh – and this led to a difficult spiritual and moral state of total subjugation to Assyria with hundreds of thousands of casualties and captives from the Kingdom of Israel. Chizkiyahu tried to repair the results of his father's actions: he wiped out idol worship, he rededicated the Temple, he strengthened the Torah, he related seriously to the words of the prophet, he prayed, he was the first to remove the bamot from the Kingdom of Yehuda, and he renewed the covenant with God through the keeping of Pesach together with the Kingdom of Israel.


In light of all this, the question cries out why it was specifically in the days of Chizkiyahu - a righteous king by all standards (as Scripture itself testifies in the book of Melakhim), and certainly in comparison to Achazthat the greatest calamities befell: the Assyrian army invaded Yehuda and destroyed the entire kingdom, except for Jerusalem; for the first time in the history of prophecy, a prophet explicitly prophesies about the destruction of the city and of God's Temple (Mikha 3:12); and for the first time in the history of the kingdom, a prophet explicitly prophesies about exile to Babylonia (II Melakhim 20:17-18)?[4]


               One possibility is that the calamity began already in the days of Achaz, and because of his deeds, and it continued in the days of Chizkiyahu, who held fast to some of his father's ways. Indeed, already in the days of Achaz, Yeshayahu foresaw the arrival of the King of Assyria:


The Lord shall bring upon you, and upon your people, and upon your father's house, days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Yehuda, namely the King of Assyria. (Yishayahu 7:17)


Now, therefore, behold, the Lord brings up upon them the waters of the river, strong and abundant, namely the King of Assyria, and all his glory. And he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks. And he shall sweep through Yehuda; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck, and the stretching out of his wing shall fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel. (ibid. 8:7-8)


               A second possibility is that the punishment came for Chizkiyahu's own actions: whether because of the difficult internal spiritual-social reality, the wantonness and governmental corruption, or because of the alliance formed with Egypt and the reliance upon it, which involved a degree of idol worship and desecration of God's name. Either way, this approach still requires careful examination: surely far more serious offences were committed in the days of Achaz, but nonetheless he was not punished for them!


               It seems to me that the correct answer is that the calamity was caused by the two kings together, and it was the combination of their evil acts that in the end brought to the invasion of the King of Assyria and to prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (which was postponed by merit of Chizkiyahu's repentance) and the exile to Babylonia. Following the difficult days of Achaz, God gave Chizkiyahu a small amount of credit, with the hope that he would actualize the opportunity to repair the kingdom and establish it on justice and judgment. However, Chizkiyahu's actions – the alliance with Egypt while submitting to the King of Assyria and paying a tribute from the coffers of the Temple, on the one hand, and the corrupt spiritual state in Yehuda and Jerusalem, on the other – prevented the realization of this hope, and the calamity came in the days of Chizkiyahu.


               Another possible way of resolving the difficulty requires an overall consideration of the period. First, one must remember that in the sixth year of Chizkiyahu, the Kingdom of Israel fell owing to its great sins. At that time, the Kingdom of Yehuda also found itself in the same process of slow degeneration which had begun already during the reign of Uziyahu, in whose days the Shekhina began to shrink from the Temple (Yishayahu 6), and he himself was afflicted with tzora'at till the day of his death after he dared enter the Temple to burn incense (II Divrei Ha-yamim 26:16-21). The situation created by Achaz son of Yotam son of Uziyahu – idol worship, worship of the Molekh, denial of prophecy and sealing of the Torah – left a heavy mark on the Kingdom of Yehuda, one which could not be totally overturned during the period of Chizkiyahu, despite the great changes that he effected. The best proof for this is the nature of the days of Menasheh son of Yechizkiyahu, when idol worship and service of the Molekh returned to the Temple and to Jerusalem, and the city was filled with innocent blood that had been shed. With all his righteousness, Chizkiyahu failed to cause the scale to tip favorably, and while Jerusalem was saved, the Kingdom of Yehuda as a whole suffered a mortal blow. Despite the essential difference between Chizkiyahu and his father Achaz, Chizkiyahu failed to overcome his times, and thus his days may be regarded as a prologue to the end of the Kingdom of Yehuda in the days of Yehoyakim, Yehoyakhin, and Tzidkiyahu.




With this shiur we conclude our analysis of the kingdom of Yechizkiyahu. In the next shiur, we will discuss the causes of the destruction of the First Temple and the end of the kingdom.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Following the days of Menasheh son of Chizkiyahu, Yoshiyahu once again removed both idol worship and the bamot. In this sense, Yoshiyahu follows in the footsteps of Chizkiyahu, and Scripture indeed relates to him in very similar language: "And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand nor to the left" (II Melakhim 22:2); "And like him was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Torah of Moshe: neither after him arose there any like him" (ibid. 23:25). This joins other similarities between Yoshiyahu and Chizkiyahu (like the observance of Pesach with the remnants of the Kingdom of Israel), but we cannot enter into a discussion of the similarity between the two kings in this framework.

[2] It might be possible to understand this from the words of Ravshake: "But if you say to me, We trust in the Lord our God: is not that He, whose high places and whose altars Chizkiyahu has taken away, and has said to Yehuda and Jerusalem, You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem" (II Melakhim 18:22). It is reasonable to assume that with these words, Ravshake wished to strengthen his audience's criticism of the king for having removed the bamot, to which the people had been very deeply attached.

[3] There is room to discuss whether the fortifications and the stopping up of the Gichon watercourse were transpired only with the invasion of Sancheriv, or perhaps already in an earlier part of Chizkiyahu's reign, long before the siege – and thus also long before Yishayahu's promise. This might be an opening to yet another way to resolve the contradiction: the Baraita in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan deals with Chizkiyahu's striving to defend his capital city in natural ways prior to the prophet's promises, whereas the Mishna in Pesachim deals with the continuation of that project in the aftermath of Yishayahu's promise.

[4] Rav Yuval Sherlo dealt with this problem in his article, "Masa Sancheriv" in: Mayim mi-Dalyo, Annual of the Lifschitz Teachers' Seminary, Jerusalem 1990, pp. 156 ff.