"My times are in Your hand; rescue me from my enemies and my pursuers." [31:16] What does it mean that one's 'times' are in God's hand?
Hezekiah's Death Sentence
The book of Isaiah relates that King Hezekiah once became deathly ill, and Isaiah came to visit him. The prophet, however, did not have good news for the righteous king. "So has God stated: Set your house in order, for you will die and not live" [Isaiah 38:1]. Many people would have called it quits upon hearing a respected prophet pronounce a death sentence so decisively, but Hezekiah turned to the wall and prayed that he might live.
And God listened, adding 15 years to his life.
The story as narrated in Isaiah is quite brief, but the Talmud [Brachot 10a] fills in important details about the conversation between Isaiah and King Hezekiah. The prophet explained to the king the reason for his illness and imminent death. Hezekiah, however, refused to accept the heavenly decree, telling Isaiah firmly:
"Son of Amotz, stop your prophesying and leave! I have a tradition from my grandfather's house (i.e., from King David): Even if a sharp sword rests over one's neck, one should not refrain from praying for mercy."
King Hezekiah's response is surprising. It is one thing to have faith in God's protection when facing troubles and difficulties. But what made Hezekiah think that his prayers could cancel a heavenly decree - especially one confirmed by a prophet?
Beating the System
Decrees from heaven emanate from the eternal workings of the universe, from the overall system of interrelated chains of cause and effect. Prophesy also deals with this long-term perspective of Divine rule.
However, human beings are granted free will within the realm of the 'here and now.' We have the ability to change and improve, and we are judged accordingly. Divine providence takes into account our current state, freeing it from the binds of previous causes.
The efficacy of prayer is precisely in its ability to elevate the individual, allowing him to overcome decrees belonging to the future via spiritual growth in the present. For this reason, the Sages referred to prayer as "chayei sha'ah" - 'life in the present time' [Shabbat 33b]. Prayer is an instrument of our free will, allowing us to break free from the timeless forces of causality and change our destiny.
When Isaiah informed Hezekiah that he was sentenced to die, the king retorted, "Stop your prophesying and leave!" Your prophesy may be true, but it is only according to the yardstick of eternal Divine rule. We also have the power of prayer and "chayei shayah." "Even if a sharp sword rests over one's neck, one should not refrain from praying for God's mercy."
Hezekiah learned this lesson from his ancestor, King David. David's statement, "My times are in Your hand," meant that also his current times and activities are in God's hand and purview. This is the power of prayer, that it can uplift a person in his present state, overcoming decrees that come from the realm of causality and overall Divine rule.
[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. I, pp. 54-55]