The Sundial Of Ahaz
The story of a Divine sign
“Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sundial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.” (Isa.38.8).
This is another of those Old Testament incidents which seem to set at defiance the known laws of Nature and hence receive more than the usual attention from sceptics and “modern” Bible scholars. In reaction to this, many studious Christians of the traditional school have sought to explain the account along lines of scientific explanations of the miracle, always on the basis of the Authorised Version translation.
It was in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign that the apparently fatal illness gripped him, and the word of the prophet Isaiah came to him “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live” (Isa.39.1). And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, for he was a devout man, and he had worked hard for the good of his people of Judah, and his work was not yet finished. There was more in Hezekiah’s grief than appears on the surface, too, for as yet he had no son, and the promised seed, Christ, could come only through his line. It seemed as though God intended to abandon His own purpose and the glory of Israel never come at all. So Hezekiah prayed that he might live.
His prayer was answered. He heard that fifteen years were to be added to his life. Isaiah was commissioned to give him a sign that the Lord would both heal his sickness and deliver the city from the army of Sennacherib, which was at the time threatening Judah, for this was before the celebrated destruction of Sennacherib’s army outside Jerusalem (Isa.38,6-7 and 36.1 and 36,37). According to the parallel account in 2 Kings 20.8-11, Hezekiah was given the choice of two signs. Either the shadow of the “sundial of Ahaz” was to go down ten degrees, or it was to return back ten degrees. Hezekiah chose the latter. It was a light thing, said he, for it to go down ten degrees; it did that every day anyway; “nay, let the shadow return back ten degrees.” And the shadow went back!
This sounds like a most amazing happening. It would seem to the ordinary man that the only way in which the shadow on a sundial could return would be for the sun to reverse its course and appear to traverse the sky from west to east, which, since it is the earth that moves, and not the sun, would imply that the earth had changed its direction of rotation and was turning backwards. On this basis the commentators of the nineteenth century endeavoured to demonstrate that such a thing did actually happen in the days of Hezekiah. A distinguished astronomer, E. W. Maunder, in the early years of the 20th century produced elaborate calculations to support this view.
Before discussing the nature of the miracle, however, let us examine the story itself, and particularly the language used, and let us try to reconstruct for ourselves the scene of which Hezekiah’s sick-bed formed the centre-piece on that memorable day.
Hezekiah lay sick in his palace. There is still much that is not known about the Jerusalem of his day, but the position of the palace of the Kings of Judah is definitely established. It lay a little to the south of the Temple, facing the Mount of Olives, which rises from the opposite side of the deep valley of the Kedron. From where Hezekiah reclined he could see the Mount directly before him and the Temple towards his left. Somewhere nearby, near enough for him to witness the ‘sign’, was the ‘sundial of Ahaz.’
Nowhere else in the Bible is there any mention of an instrument for measuring time. Until the days of Daniel, over a century later, there are no indications that the children of Israel divided the day into hours. One is justified therefore in looking a little more carefully at this expression ‘the sundial of Ahaz.’
Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah, was a great admirer of foreign innovations, as is evidenced by the account in 2 Kings 16, and he might very well have acquired a sundial for his palace grounds were such things in existence in his day. The earliest known sundials are of Greek manufacture and date back only so far as the sixth century B.C., two hundred years later than the time of Ahaz. The Roman engineer Marcus Vitruvius, the author of a celebrated work on architecture and mechanical inventions, written in the time of Augustus Caesar, a few years before Jesus was born, says that the sundial was invented by Berosus, the Chaldean priest (Arch. 9. 9); and Berosus lived only about 250 BC. Herodotus, the Greek historian (440 BC), states that the sundial was invented by the Babylonians (Hist.2,109), whilst in Homer’s “Odyssey” (900 BC) there is an obscure reference to a means of observing the revolutions of the sun in use in Syria (Odyss. 15,402). It is just possible therefore that Ahaz could have possessed a sundial.
It is when the word ‘sundial’ is examined that a totally different complexion is put upon the account. The Hebrew is maalah, which denotes an ascent by means of steps or stages, and is used for “steps” or “stairs” in the Old Testament. The steps of the altar in Exod. 20. 26, and of Solomon’s throne in 1 Kings 10,19,20. and the stairs of 2 Kings 9.13 and Ezek.40.6 are ‘maalah’. So, likewise, are the majestic words in Amos 9.6. “It is he that buildeth his stories in the heavens” where “stories” refer to the stages or terraces of the Babylonian ziggurats or temple towers, reared up into the heavens. And this word ‘maalah’ is also translated degrees in the accounts of the miracle. The AV translators are guilty of an inconsistency here for both “degrees” and “sundial” are from the same Hebrew word. Rotherham translates 2 Kings 20.11, “And he caused the shadow on the steps, by which it had gone down the steps of Ahaz, to go back ten steps” and Isa 38.8, “Behold me! causing the shadow on the steps, which hath come down on the steps of Ahaz with the sun, to return backwards ten steps.”
Nehemiah (3.15 and 12.37) speaks of “stairs that go down from the city of David.” Jerusalem was built on several hills with two deep valleys – to those of the Kedron and Gay-Hinnom (Gehenna), intersecting them and there were various flights of stone steps built up the sides of these valleys. It is known that one such staircase descended the slope from the King’s Palace eastward down to the Horse Gate in the city wall (Neh.3.28; 2 Chron.23.15; Jer.31.40) and another ascended from the Horse Gate up to the south side of the Temple. By means of these two stairways the King possessed what amounted to a private way to the Temple, and there is one rather obscure passage in 2 Kings 16.18 which indicates that Ahaz made some alteration to one of these stairways. It seems then that the stairs leading down from the Palace to the Horse Gate are those to which reference is made in Isaiah.
Now these steps running roughly eastward down the slope, with the lofty buildings of the Palace at the top between them and the afternoon sun, were shrouded in shadow every afternoon. As soon as the sun had passed the zenith at midday, the shadow of the Palace roof would fall upon the topmost step, and thereafter as the sun sank towards the west, so the shadow would grow longer and creep down the stairs to the end. That is the shadow that had gone down ten of the steps (‘degrees’ in the AV) at the time of the sign. It must have been about the middle of the afternoon. Hezekiah had lain there many afternoons watching the shadow of his father’s house creep down those stairs until at length, as it reached the Horse Gate at the bottom, the sun sank below the horizon behind his palace, the daylight rapidly faded and the short Palestinian twilight gave way to black night. So is the fate of my father’s house, he must have thought bitterly: I am to die childless; there will be none of my line to reign after me on the throne of the Lord in Judah; all the promises made to the fathers will fail; there can never be a son of David to become David’s Lord. God had forgotten to be gracious.
And then he saw the sign! Josephus makes it plain in his account of the circumstances (Ant.10,2,1) that the shadow had gone down ten steps of the staircase and then returned. What had happened? What was it in this inexplicable phenomenon that convinced Hezekiah that God was with him and would heal him?
It is not necessary to suppose that God interfered so much with the normal course of Nature as to halt and reverse the onward progression of the sun through the sky. Less spectacular and unlikely causes would have produced the effect. Under certain climatic conditions clouds of minute ice crystals can form at a great height in the upper reaches of the air; the apparent result as seen from the earth is the appearance of a band of light passing through the sun, and two additional suns, one on either side of the true sun. This effect, which is known as parhelia, or “mock sun” is due to the refraction of the sun’s light as it passes through the prismatic ice crystals on its way to the earth. If now a cloud, at a much lower altitude, should obscure real sun and the western “mock sun” over a certain district, the only light reaching that district is from the eastern “mock sun,” and the effect is as if the sun had receded eastwards by a certain fixed amount (always equal to one and a half hours of our time). Two occasions when this actually happened are on record; one was on 27th March 1703 at Metz in France, when the shadow on the sundial of the Prior of Metz was displaced by one and a half hours. The other occasion was on the 28th March, 1848 over parts of Hampshire when the same effect was observed.
Now this is a perfectly logical scientific explanation and the miracle could very well have been due to this cause, except for one consideration. Hezekiah had been at great pains to put down Baal worship, the constant curse of Israel, and to restore the worship of Jehovah. The sun was the visible symbol of Baal. Such a phenomenon as is described above would be probably interpreted by those who witnessed it as a manifestation of the power and interest of Baal. The credit for the sign, and consequently for the cure of Hezekiah’s sickness, would have been given, not to the God of Israel, but to Baal. Much of Hezekiah’s own good work would have been undone. For this reason it is unlikely that God would use the sun as an instrument for effecting the ‘sign’.
Is there then another possible means by which the miracle could have been performed, more in keeping with the majesty and power of God and more indisputably attributable to Him? The fact that as Hezekiah looked down his staircase, the Temple of the Lord was in full view upon his left, at the summit of Mount Moriah, suggests that there is.
The shadow of the palace lay ten steps down the staircase. Only the return of the sunlight could remove it – or a light brighter than sunlight. Every Israelite knew that there was such a light; the holy ‘Shekinah’, that supernatural light that shone from between the cherubim in the Most Holy, that had been the guide of Israel in the wilderness in those long ago Exodus days, a “fire by night,” one that had been seen on rare occasions when God had cause to manifest His majesty and power in visible form. That fierce light, brighter than the sun at noonday, had flashed out from the Tabernacle to slay Nadab and Abihu when they offered “strange fire” before the Lord (Lev.10.2); it had flooded the camp at the time of Korah’s rebellion (Num.16. 42-45); it had filled Solomon’s Temple at its dedication. Isaiah saw it once in vision when he received his commission of service (Isa.6.1). Is it possible that as Hezekiah gazed still upon the staircase, waiting for the sign that the Lord had promised him, the wondrous glory of the Shekinah did indeed blaze out from that sanctuary on the hill, blotting out the brightness of the sun itself, lighting all Jerusalem with its radiance? The shadow on the steps would have vanished in an instant. The whole scene, the Palace Gardens, the stairs themselves, the city wall and the Horse Gate far below, and the Mount of Olives on the opposite side of the valley, stand out in sharp relief vividly delineated in that blinding white light. If this is indeed what happened on that memorable day, what possible doubt could remain in Hezekiah’s mind? More convincing by far than any natural celestial phenomenon, this message from the sanctuary was as the appearance of God Himself.
All Jerusalem must have seen it. All Jerusalem must have interpreted it aright. The Shekinah came forth only for destruction or blessing. Hezekiah was a good king, a God-fearing man. It could only mean that he would recover, that he would live to play his part in the fulfilment of Divine promise, that there would yet be a son to sit upon the throne of the Lord after him, that the destiny of Israel would yet be achieved. The news would travel quickly, and before long all Judea would know what had happened, and that the king’s life had been prolonged for fifteen years.
So the wonderful story concludes with Hezekiah going up to the Temple to sing his songs of praise to the stringed instruments, all the days of his life, for his deliverance and for the marvelous happenings (Isa. 38.20). Fifteen songs did he compose and named them “songs of the steps”. They appear today in the Book of Psalms as Psalms 120 to 134, and they are headed “songs of degrees” by the AV translators. (The ascription of some of them to David is incorrect). For ever afterwards they were used in the Temple ceremonies, and today we use them still, a memorial of that day when the Lord turned back the shadow that was over the house of Israel, and His glory was seen in Jerusalem.