(First Sunday after Christmas.)
Isaiah xxxviii.16. O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit.
These words are the words of Hezekiah, king of Judah; and they are true words, words from God. But, if they are true words, they are true words for every one -- for you and me, for every one here in this church this day: for they do not say, By these things certain men live, one man here and another man there; but all men. Whosoever is really alive, that is, has life in his spirit, his soul, his heart, the life of a man and not a beast, the only life which is worthy to be called life, then that life is kept up in him in the same way that it was kept up in Hezekiah, and by the same means.
Let us see, then, what things they were which gave Hezekiah's spirit life. Great joy, great honour, great success, wealth, health, prosperity and pleasure? Was it by these things that Hezekiah found men lived? Not so, but by great sorrow. 'In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amos came unto him and said, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shall die and not live. Then Hezekiah turned his face towards the wall and prayed unto the Lord; and Hezekiah wept sore.'
Trouble upon trouble came on Hezekiah; and that just when he might have expected a little rest. The Lord had just delivered Hezekiah and the Jews from a fearful danger, of which we read in the chapter before. Hezekiah had believed God's promise by the mouth of Isaiah. He held fast his faith in God when Sennacherib and his Assyrian army were camping round Jerusalem; for God had said, 'I will defend this city to save it for my own sake and for my servant David's sake.' He defended his city bravely and nobly, and showed himself a true, and valiant, and godly king. And perhaps Hezekiah expected to be rewarded for his faith, and rewarded for having done his duty: but it was not so. He had to wait, and to endure more. And now this fresh trouble was come upon him. Isaiah told him he should die and not live: and he must prepare himself to meet death.
Hezekiah, you see, was horribly afraid of death. I do not mean that he was afraid of going to hell, for he does not say so: but he felt, to use his own words, 'The grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.' And, therefore, death looked to him an ugly and an evil thing -- as it is; the Lord's enemy, and his last enemy, the one with which he will have the longest and sorest fight. He conquered death by rising from the dead: but nevertheless we die; and death is an ugly, fearful, hateful thing in itself, and rightly called the King of Terrors: for terrible it is to those who do not know that Christ has conquered it. Hezekiah lived before the Lord Jesus came into the flesh to bring life and immortality to light, by rising from the dead; and, therefore, the life after death was not brought to light to him, any more than it was to David, or any other Old Testament Jew. He dreaded it, because he knew not what would come after death. And, therefore, he prayed hard not to die. He did not pray altogether in a right way: but still he prayed. 'Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which was good in thy sight.' And the Lord heard his prayer. 'Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying, Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears, behold I will add unto thy days fifteen years.'
Then what was the use of God's warning to him? What was the use of his sickness and his terror, if, after all, his prayer was heard, and after the Lord had told him, Thou shall die and not live -- that did not come to pass: but the very contrary happened, that he lived, and did not die?
Of what use to him was it? Of this use at least, that it taught him that the Lord God would hear the prayers of mortal men. Oh my friends, is not that worth knowing? Is not that worth going through any misery to learn -- that the Lord will hear us? That he is not a cold, arbitrary tyrant, who goes his own way, never caring for our cries and tears, too proud to turn out of his way to hear us: but that he is very pitiful and of tender mercy, and repenting him of the evil? Hezekiah did not pray rightly. He thought himself a better man than he was. He said, 'Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.' And Hezekiah wept sore. But he did pray. He went to God, and told his story to him, and wept sore; and the Lord God heard him, and taught him that he was not as good as he fancied; taught him that, after all, he had nothing to say for himself -- no reason to shew why he should not die. 'What shall I say? He hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.' And so he felt that, instead of justifying himself, he must throw himself utterly on God's love and mercy; that God must undertake for him. 'O Lord, I am oppressed, crushed -- the heart is beaten out of me. I have nothing to say for myself. Undertake for me. I have nothing to say for myself, but I have plenty to say of thee. Thou art good and just. Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell. I can say no more.'
And then he found that the Lord was ready to save him. That what the Lord wished was, not to kill him, but to recover him, and make him live -- live more really, and fully, and wisely, and manfully -- by making him trust more utterly in God's goodness, and love, and mercy; making him more certain that, good as he thought himself, and perfect in heart, he was full of sins: and yet that the Lord had cast all these sins of his behind his back, forgotten and forgiven them, as soon as he had made him see that all that was good and strong in him came from God, and all that was evil and weak from himself. And then he says, 'O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit.' God meant all along to receive me, and make me live. He chastened me, and brought me low, to shew me that my own faith, my own righteousness, was no reason for his saving me: but that his own love and mercy was a good reason for saving me. 'Behold,' he goes on to say, 'for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.'
And, my dear friends, what Hezekiah saw but dimly, we ought to see clearly. The blessed news of the Gospel ought to tell us it clearly. For the blessed Gospel tells us that the same Lord who chastened and taught, and then saved, Hezekiah, was made flesh, and born a man of the substance of a mortal woman; that he might in his own person bear all our sicknesses and carry our infirmities; that he might understand all our temptations, and be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, seeing that he himself was tempted in all points likewise, yet without sin.
Oh hear this, you who have had sorrows in past times. Hear this, you who expect sorrows in the times to come.
He who made, he who lightens, every man who comes into the world; he who gave you every right thought and wholesome feeling that you ever had in your lives: he counts your tears; he knows your sorrows; he is able and willing to save you to the uttermost. Therefore do not be afraid of your own afflictions. Face them like men. Think over them. Ask him to help you out of them: or if that is not to be, at least to tell you what he means by them. Be sure that what he must mean by them is good to you: a lesson to you, that in some way or other they are meant to make you wiser, stronger, hardier, more sure of God's love, more ready to do God's work, whithersoever it may lead you. Do not be afraid of the dark day of affliction, I say. It may teach you more than the bright prosperous one. Many a man can see clearly in the cloudy day, who would be dazzled in the sunlight. The dull weather, they say, is the best weather for battle; and sorrow is the best time for seeing through and conquering one's own self. Therefore do not be afraid, I say, of sorrow. All the clouds in the sky cannot move the sun a foot further off; and all the sorrow in the world cannot move God any further off. God is there still, where he always was; near you, and below you, and above you, and around you; for in him you live and move and have your being, and are the offspring and children of God. Nay, he is nearer you, if possible, in sorrow, than in joy. He is informing you, and guiding you with his eye, and, like a father, teaching you the right way which you should go. He is searching and purging your hearts, and cleansing you from your secret faults, and teaching you to know who you are and to know who he is -- your Father, the knowledge of whom is life eternal. By these things, my friends -- by being brought low and made helpless, till ashamed of ourselves, and weary of ourselves, we lift up eyes and heart to God who made us, like lost children crying after a Father -- by these things, I say, we live, and in all these things is the life of our spirit.