In his day, Hezekiah was a household name in Judah. Indeed, those familiar with the Bible will recognize him as one of the more godly rulers, and Matthew cites his name when giving us the genealogy of Joseph.
Toward the end of the first section (chapters 1-39) of Isaiah, the king is brought low by an unnamed illness. In the ancient world, many illnesses were fatal that cause us no worry today. Regardless, Hezekiah was brought to confront his mortality. After his cure, this psalm of lament (38:10-20) is cited by the prophet and attributed to the king.
Roman Catholics pray this lyric every fourth Tuesday at morning prayer. It is listed as a “canticle,” possibly a semantic point. The style places it well within the genre of lament as we often read in the Psalms.
The given antiphon is suggested by verse 17:
You have held back my life, O Lord, from the pit of doom.
The entire piece is not utilized in liturgy by-the-book. The Liturgy of the Hours omits verses 15-17a from prayer. Scripture scholars are unsure of this section, but I read it as a positive interjection. According to the larger context of Isaiah 38-39, this song was composed after Hezekiah’s illness and recovery.
The version suggested for the Pastoral Care of the Sick is more brief–just verses 10-12 and 16. Here’s how they look:
In the noontime of life I said,
I must depart!
To the gates of Sheol I have been consigned
for the rest of my years.
I said, I shall see the LORD no more
in the land of the living.
Nor look on any mortals
among those who dwell in the world.
My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,
is struck down and borne away from me;
You have folded up my life, like a weaver
who severs me from the last thread.
From morning to night you make an end of me;
Those live whom the LORD protects;
yours is the life of my spirit.
You have given me health and restored my life!
At least those who assembled the pastoral care rites kept that inevitable bit of confidence that appends every Scriptural lament. If singing this at a communal liturgy, I’m aware of settings. But none really stand out. It’s a good text for some future composer to give the Church a brilliant offering.
For an individual celebration of anointing, Isaiah 38 might be appropriate for a younger person suffering from cancer. Those images in verse 12: striking a tent, folding up a weaver’s work–what would we say today? Shutting down a computer. Consigning a car to the scrapyard. While the given refrain for this text is good enough, perhaps that acclamation that leads verse 17, “Peace in place of bitterness!” may be a more honest and heartfelt antiphon.