Isaiah 38 provides one of the Bible's most blatant proofs that prayer can change things. Interestingly parallel passages draw into question whether or not prayer always works for the better. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the transaction that takes place in the first four verses of Isaiah 38 and also to discuss some of the effects of the transaction. Finally it will consider some of the lessons that we may draw from our own prayer lives.
For anyone that wishes to claim that God's sovereignty demands that prayer is ineffectual and that His will is unchanging Isaiah 38:1 presents a severe problem. The verse states that Hezekiah had an illness that would kill him. Further the prophet Isaiah is sent to tell him he will die and not recover. This is significant: the hallmark of a prophet was that his prediction happened. It was also an Old Testament principle that the actions of God were not hidden from His prophets. It is therefore indisputably clear that as of Isaiah 38:1 it was God's purpose and intent that Hezekiah should die in the near future.
We are told that Hezekiah's response was that he turned to God and prayed and wept. The text we are given shows that Hezekiah was distressed and confused. He had followed God with his whole heart and he didn't understand why he should die prematurely. We know from 2Ki 20:4 that God's response was swift. Isaiah had only exited as far as the middle court before he was sent back. The Bible makes clear that the message was to be that the prayers and tears had been heard. Therefore the message of verse one was overturned and Hezekiah received fifteen more years.
The question becomes: if God intended to let Hezekiah die then why did He allow His mind to be changed. To explain this I believe one needs to consider an obscure detail hidden in 2Ki 21:1. Manasseh the son of Hezekiah came to the throne at the age of twelve. This means he was conceived thirteen years before Hezekiah's death which places it at two years after the healing incident.
Firstly this helps to explain Hezekiah's angst upon hearing of his impending demise. It was not so much that he was to die; that would have been expected eventually. The point is that he was going to die without a direct heir. This would have been seen as failure. The extra fifteen years allowed him to produce heirs. When Isaiah addresses Hezekiah in 2Ki 20:18 it was apparent that Hezekiah was still to produce male heirs.
Secondly it may explain why God's initial intent had been to let Hezekiah die. 2Ki 21:9 shows that Manasseh was one of the worst kings that Judah had. He undid the good the Hezekiah had done and caused Judah to sin more than they had before. It may well be the case that Hezekiah had been due to perish to save Judah from Manasseh.
The prayer may also have had a secondary and less obvious deleterious effect: this time upon the character of Hezekiah. Shortly after his healing Hezekiah received a prince from Babylon and showed him the glory of his kingdom. Isaiah was quickly dispatched to tell Hezekiah of his error and that it would result in the kingdom being taken away during the time of his children. Astonishingly Hezekiah seemed to feel this was good news. It may well be the case that the 'post trauma' Hezekiah was a rather less dedicated and rather more self indulgent man than he had been before. Perhaps Manasseh's character was even molded by the knowledge that his father had effectively destined him to a dubious fate.
For us I believe this story should be encouraging yet sobering. An event that appears so immutable that even a prophet of God has declared it may yet be altered by the power of genuine heartfelt prayer. Nonetheless we should question closely whether we wish to use prayer to try to alter the plans of God; or whether we should actually be praying that God's will be done. It is interesting that in both the disciple's prayer and also in Gethsemane the Lord prayed for the will of the father to be done. Hezekiah did not want the Lord's will done - he had a petition he wished to make. That is legitimate and God answered the request. However a prayer of 'thy will be done' may have altered the course of history; possibly for the better.