The Danger of Prosperity

Isaiah 38, 39.

It may be, nay, it very often is so, that God's prosperings are attended with greater danger to our souls than are the devil's harassings.

We have an illustration of this in the concluding portion of this parenthetical history. In chapters 36, 37, the uncircumcised thunders at the gates of Jerusalem, Hezekiah is not dismayed. He sanctifies the Lord God of Israel in his heart, and in place of crying for being overcome is compassed about with songs of deliverance. With crippled Jacob "by his strength he has power with God." The letter of the invader, with all its boastings, all its threats, all its scoffs, all its revilings, is laid down quietly before the Lord; it has reached the right address, for the Lord declares concerning its writer, "I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against Me. Because thy rage against Me and thy tumult is come up into mine ears, therefore [undertaking the answer] I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest." As David, a "dead dog" in his own eyes; as Paul, in that time of trouble which came upon him in Asia, having the sentence of death in himself, in company with all those obtainers of a divine good report, of whom the world was not worthy, "Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens." This Israelite, indeed, takes hold of the strength of the mighty God of Jacob, "believes that He is," and so believing is upheld by the right hand of His righteousness. "Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God." The incensed waves of the strong and many waters of the Assyrian river have overflowed, and go over the land, whence is faith's expectation. "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I;" they toss themselves and foam, but they are broken, and come to nought. The stretching forth of the wings fill the breadth of the land, but the name of Immanuel is written upon that land. In the time of the flood, there is a standard; in the day of battle, a strong tower. "God is with us."

But the divine verdict is not merely that "flesh is grass;" it reads thus, "All flesh is grass." Are we prepared to acknowledge the truth of such a verdict? to believe that "there is no difference," that the God-fearing Hezekiah and the godless Assyrian differ nothing in nature the one from the other? "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked," this He has declared it to be, whose is the sole prerogative and the ability to search it. The heart of a Sennacherib, coming out in undisguised blasphemy, without contradiction, is bad, unmixedly bad, desperately wicked; such flesh cannot glory in God's presence. But there is a companion picture. The Holy Ghost would instruct us that the flesh in a Hezekiah is no better than the flesh in a Sennacherib. "No flesh shall glory." "As in water, face answereth to face, so does the heart of man to man" - not more like is the face that looks out of the water to the face that looks in, than is heart to heart.

Bright, and only bright, would have been the portrait of this saint, had the record closed here. Bright indeed it is; "He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. For he clave to the Lord, and departed not from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; and he prospered whithersoever he went forth: and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not. He smote the Philistines, even unto Gaza, and the borders thereof, from the tower of the watchman to the fenced city." (2 Kings 18:3-8.) But then the Spirit of God is a faithful biographer; and the memoir He has furnished has its double instruction, its answer to both petitions, "Teach me what Thou art," "Teach me what I am." Hezekiah has been proving the Lord. We have now to look at him in other circumstances proving himself.

It is the hour of prosperity. The Lord by His favour has made his mountain to stand strong; the good hand of his God has wrought deliverance; riches flow in from every side; and the renown of his name is spread abroad. "Many brought gifts unto the Lord to Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah king of Judah: so that he was magnified in the sight of all nations from thenceforth." (2 Chron. 32:23.) Popularity, a great name like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth, is the result of the faith that, in the sense of his own nothingness, had to do with God. Hezekiah's history is in this respect no uncommon history. How many a saint has been lifted into a position of prominence before the eyes of his fellow saints, and before the world, through a course of unaffected simplicity of dependence, and of purpose of heart for God. Hezekiah "was magnified in the sight of all nations from thenceforth;" yes; but, alas! he was magnified also in his own sight. In all times of our prosperity let us say, "O Lord, hold thou me up!"

"In my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved. Thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled." There is one who understands our case; and in the lights and shades of the life of faith the Physician is at work. What emptyings from vessel to vessel go on there to prevent a settling on our lees. We are "exceeding glad of the gourd." But such gladness is ephemeral. The leaves curl, the haulm shrivels; for the Lord God, who had prepared the gourd, has prepared a worm at the root of the gourd. Our gourd is withered.

Is there nothing answering to this in the history before us? "In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live." Yes, the worm is there.

We get a similar word addressed to one of whom there is mention in the gospel. The ground of a rich man had brought forth plentifully. According to human computation, he had much goods laid up for many years, and he thought within himself, I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I store my goods. I will say to my soul, Soul, take thine ease; eat, drink, and be merry. But he was reminded that he was living, and reckoning, and boasting himself of the morrow apart from that God in whose hand his breath was. "Thou fool," sounded in his ears, "this night thy soul shall be required of thee."

These fingers of a man's hand writing upon the plaister of the wall have their solemn instruction.

How does Hezekiah receive the message? What is its effect on this saint of God? "Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord." (v. 2.) Could he have done better? The man who in the strait of the siege betook himself to the temple in this time of his sickness, now that his feet can no longer tread the courts of the house of his God, bethinks himself, and turns, and makes supplication from his bed thitherward. "I have set the Lord always before me," is the language of faith. So far all is right. But we need look a little closer, and consider not simply the fact of his praying, but the character of his prayer. If the Lord is set before Hezekiah, Hezekiah is set before the Lord.

What is his cry? "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." (v. 3.) He is calling on God to witness to his faithfulness, to the perfectness of his heart, to the goodness of his ways, to his jealousy against idolatry, to his diligence in restoring the feasts, and worship, and order of Israel In the temple he had spread the letter with its blasphemies, now he spreads his graces before the Lord, and appeals to Him on the credit of them.

Will the Lord admit the plea? He is not unrighteous to forget; He does not deny the truth of what Hezekiah says. He takes it at its worth, and tells him He will yet add fifteen years to his life. "Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying, Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years." (vv. 4, 5.)

To a casual observer there might be nothing wonderful in this recovery of one who had been sick unto death. Such things are of daily occurrence. The proverb has it, "While there is life there is hope," and our infidel hearts deify means. But the sentence of death has gone forth from the mouth of the Lord, and it has taken hold; the faith of a Hezekiah can be only and nakedly in God. To Him to whom belongeth the issues of death, who turneth man to destruction, and saith, Return ye children of men, he looks in the hour of his sore sickness. The Lord that hath recovered him, and made him to live, he celebrates in the writing which he wrote when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness. The lump of figs laid as a plaister on the boil is but a lump of figs. If healing and health have flowed into his veins mediately through them, the breaker of the brazen serpent acknowledges that it is the God of the brazen serpent that has been at work. A wonder has been wrought in the land.

There is an accompanying wonder, the tidings whereof reach even to Babylon, "So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down." (v. 8.) The princes of Babylon may send to enquire about this wonder, and congratulate the king on whose behalf it has been wrought; but He whose hand is in both, who suspends not, nor reverses the action of the laws of nature, save in the accomplishment of His own counsels, has another field of enquiry for His saints. On the sick-bed of Hezekiah, no less than on the dial of Ahaz, God has put forth His power. "I will bring again the shadow of the degrees," "I will add unto thy days fifteen years." Faith owns this; but the secret of His ways has to be arrived at by the man of faith, not through enquiries in the world without, but through the discovery to himself of the world within.

"The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness: I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world. Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: He will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me. I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will He break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me. Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me." (vv. 9-14.)

These bemoanings of a Hezekiah and other godly souls of old are so many preachings of much practical value to ourselves, as illustrating the deliverance wrought for us in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Death and life stand side by side in the "all things" that are ours. The keys of hell and death are in the hands of a risen Lord. The grace of God, by which the Lord Jesus Christ tasted death, has triumphed in the stronghold of him who had the power of death, award of the judgment of God. But there is nothing of this in the scene before us. Darkness and dread, and the breaking up of earthly occupations, and ties, and hopes, press on the soul. There is no "Thanks be to God, which giveth, us the victory," for there is no such victory known. God is looked to, but it is for a present deliverance from death, and for prolonged life in the land. On what wondrous vantage-ground is the simple believer in Jesus now set. For him, death is a thing behind, he has a life hidden with Christ in God. Christ is his life, and whilst he knows that when Christ shall appear, he shall appear with Him in glory, he is waiting for God's Son from heaven, as his immediate and blessed hope. He may put off this mortal body if Jesus tarry, that is but a filling asleep, a being put to sleep by Jesus; he departs to be with Christ, which is far better, instead of being at home in the body, and absent from the Lord: absent from the body, he is present with the Lord. My reader, can you say, as in such a position, "I am always confident"? or are you, with many a bearer of the name of the risen One, still seeking the living among the dead?

To return to the writing - "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 O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live. Behold, 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. For the grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth. The Lord was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord." (vv. 15-20.)

The Lord has undertaken for him. He killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up. Such is the acknowledgment of Hezekiah. "Salvation is of the Lord."

And mark, with the sense of this deliverance fresh upon his soul, the purpose of Hezekiah's heart is not merely that of paying that which he has vowed in the presence of the Lord's people, of sacrificing unto Him with the voice of thanksgiving: his thought is, that he shall bear along with him the remembrance of these days through all after life, that what man is and what death is, as he saw and felt about them then, will never be forgotten. But it is one thing to recognise the truth of these things with the face to the wall, one thing to have the strength and godliness of nature withered there and thus; and it is altogether another and a different thing, so to live in the continual sense of God's presence, as to disallow every pretension of the flesh.

What resolutions, not insincere but formed in ignorance of self; are recorded in this memorandum of a convalescent Hezekiah. He who had thought to behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world is about to enter afresh. for a definite added term upon the scenes and activities of life, how will he carry himself in them? The dead and risen one will be altogether unlike his former self. His sins of the past forgiven, he starts afresh with settled purpose of heart that he will no longer live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. Bearing about with him in all its wholesome bitterness the lesson of death, a living one, he will be on the principle of a continuous gratitude, the worshipper and extoller of the Lord. Such is his settled purpose. Alas! it is built upon the "I shall" and "we will" of a sincere but self-ignorant heart. Ere the cock crow, this Old Testament Peter must be made to prove that his own "I will," like the "will not I" of the son of Jonas, is but big words. There is no "hold thou me up" about it, and hence there is no stability.

The very next chapter brings before us a state of things entirely dissimilar from that of these good resolutions, It is again a time of prosperity; the sackcloth is put off, and the wearer of it is girded with gladness. Is the house in order? has God His own right place? The ambassadors of the king of Babylon have come, and Hezekiah's heart is "lifted up;" the man who was to go softly is a self-exalter. "Howbeit in the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent unto him to enquire of the wonder that was done in the land, God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart." (2 Chron. 32:31.)

He has put God in remembrance of the perfectness of his heart, and God leaves him that he may know what that heart is. The ambassadors come: an opportunity is presented for magnifying the Lord, for making known the truth. What does he do? Then "Hezekiah was glad of them, and showed them the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah showed them not." He was glad of them: this explains it all. He calls them to examine his treasures; but God is calling him to the examination of his own heart. "I am king in Jerusalem," says that heart in its pride; just as another, "Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power and for the honour of my majesty?" There is nothing of the dead man in all this, nothing of a going softly.

It needs but that we be left a little moment, so that we should be tried, in order to our knowing all that is in our hearts, and that which is in the heart comes out to our self-loathing. "He that trusteth his own heart is a fool." That man may carry himself well and go through with the cheat until he makes his bow at the end who is the more actor of a part, walking before his fellow men instead of before God. It may be a fair show that is made, though a fair show in the flesh. But the true-hearted saint, who knows what it is to wrestle and writhe through the onslaught of indwelling corruption, to detect the breaking out afresh of some old sore, the stealthy reviving of the viper long thought dead, finds his safety in a holding fast grace and keeping himself in the love of God.

To return to Hezekiah. We read in Chronicles that he "rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him; for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem. Notwithstanding Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord came not upon them in the days of Hezekiah." He humbles himself under the hand and word of the Lord. It is ever thus with one through grace true at bottom. The look that, while it brings sin to mind, assures us that He is unchanged in His love against whom that sin is, and that He has provided for it all, works brokenness of spirit. "Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from a far country unto me, even from Babylon. Then said he, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All that is in mine house have they seen; there is nothing among my treasures that I have not showed them. Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord of hosts Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon." (vv. 3-7.)

"Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken. He said moreover, For there shall be peace and truth in my days." (v. 8.) What a justifying of God in His ways have we here! However humbling the needed process through which His saints are put, the grace is pure that does it. Our profit is attained when, exercised through the discipline, we turn from self and from eyeing our graces to find in God our help.