"The Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets."
The chapter from which my text is taken, which is the first lesson for this evening's service, is a very awful chapter, for it gives us an insight into the meaning of that most awful and terrible word-- temptation. And yet it is a most comforting chapter, for it shews us how God is long-suffering and merciful, even to the most hardened sinner; how to the last He puts before him good and evil, to choose between them, and warns him to the last of his path, and the ruin to which it leads.
We read of Ahab in the first lesson this morning as a thoroughly wicked man,--mean and weak, cruel and ungodly, governed by his wife Jezebel, a heathen woman, in marrying whom he had broken God's law,-- a woman so famous for cruelty and fierceness, vanity and wickedness, that her name is a by-word even here in England now--"as bad as Jezebel," we say to this day. We heard of Ahab in this morning's lesson letting Jezebel murder the righteous Naboth, by perjury and slander, to get possession of his vineyard; and then, instead of shrinking with abhorrence from his wife's iniquity, going down and taking possession of the land which he had gained by her sin. We read of God's curse on him, and yet of God's long-suffering and pardon to him on his repentance. Yet, neither God's curse nor God's mercy seem to have moved him. But he had been always the same. "He did evil," the Bible tells us, "in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him." He deserted the true God for his wife's idols and false gods; and in spite of Elijah's miracle at Carmel--of which you heard last Sunday--by which he proved by fire which was the true God, and in spite of the wonderful victory which God had given him, by means of one of God's prophets, over the Syrians, he still remained an idolater. He would not be taught, nor understand; neither God's threats nor mercies could move him; he went on sinning against light and knowledge; and now his cup was full--his days were numbered, and God's vengeance was ready at the door.
He consulted all his false prophets as to whether or not he should go to attack the Syrians at Ramoth-Gilead. They knew what to say-- they knew that their business was to prophesy what would pay them-- what would be pleasant to him. They did not care whether what they said was true or not--they lied for the sake of gain, for the Lord had put a lying spirit into their mouths. They were rogues and villains from the first. They had turned prophets, not to speak God's truth, but to make money, to flatter King Ahab, to get themselves a reputation. We do not hear that they were all heathens. Many of them may have believed in the true God. But they were cheats and liars, and so they had given place to the devil, the father of lies: and now he had taken possession of them in spite of themselves, and they lied to Ahab, and told him that he would prosper in the battle at Ramoth-Gilead. It was a dangerous thing for them to say; for if he had been defeated, and returned disappointed, his rage would have most probably fallen on them for deceiving them. And as in those Eastern countries kings do whatever they like without laws or parliaments, Ahab would have most likely put them all to a miserable death on the spot. But however dangerous it might be for them to lie, they could not help lying. A spirit of lies had seized them, and they who began by lying, because it paid them, now could not help doing so whether it paid them or not.
But the good king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, had no faith in these flattering villains. He asked whether there was not another prophet of the Lord to inquire of? Ahab told him that there was one, Micaiah the son of Imlah, but that he hated him, because he only prophesied evil of him. What a thorough picture of a hardened sinner--a man who has become a slave to his own lusts, till he cares nothing for a thing being true, provided only it is pleasant! Thus the wilful sinner, like Ahab, becomes both fool and coward, afraid to look at things as they are; and when God's judgments stare him in the face, the wretched man shuts his eyes tight, and swears that the evil is not there, just because he does not choose to see it.
But the evil was there, ready for Ahab, and it found him. When he forced Micaiah to speak, Micaiah told him the whole truth. He told him a vision, or dream, which he had seen. "Hear thou therefore the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him. And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead? And there came forth a spirit, and said, I will go forth, and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And the Lord said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee."
What warning could be more awful, and yet more plain? Ahab was told that he was listening to a lie. He had free choice to follow that lie or not, and he did follow it. After having put Micaiah into prison for speaking the truth to him, he went up to Ramoth-Gilead; and yet he felt he was not safe. He had his doubts and his fears. He would not go openly into the battle, but disguised himself, hoping that by this means he should keep himself safe from evil. Fool! God's vengeance could not be stopped by his paltry cunning. In spite of all his disguises, a chance shot struck him down between the joints of his armour. His chariot-driver carried him out of the battle, and "he was stayed up in his chariot against the Syrians, and died at even: and the blood ran out of his wound into the midst of the chariot. And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up his blood there," according to the word of the Lord, which He spoke by the mouth of His prophet Elijah, saying, "In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, whom thou slewest, shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine."
And do not fancy, my friends, that because this is a miraculous story of ancient times, it has nothing to do with us. All these things were written for our example. This chapter tells us not merely how Ahab was tempted, but it tells us how WE are tempted, every one of us, here in England, in these very days. As it was with Ahab, so it is with us. Every wilful sin that we commit we give room to the devil. Every wrong step that we take knowingly, we give a handle to some evil spirit to lead us seven steps further wrong. And yet in every temptation God gives us a fair chance. He is no cruel tyrant who will deliver us over to the devil, to be led helpless and blindfold to our ruin. He did not give Ahab over to him so. He sent a lying spirit to deceive Ahab's prophets, that Ahab might go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead; but at the very same time, see, he sends a holy and a true man, a man whom Ahab could trust, and did trust at the bottom of his heart, to tell him that the lie was a lie, to warn him of his ruin, so that he might have no excuse for listening to those false prophets--no excuse for following his own pride, his own ambition, to his destruction. So you see, "Let no man say, when he is tempted, I am tempted of God, for God tempteth no man, but every one is tempted when he is led away by his own lust and enticed." Ahab was led away by his own lust; his cowardly love of hearing what was pleasant and flattering to him, rather than what was true--rather than what he knew he deserved; that was what enticed him to listen to Zedekiah and the false prophets, rather than to Micaiah the son of Imlah. THAT is what entices us to sin--the lust of believing what is pleasant to us, what suits our own self-will--what is pleasant to our bodies-- pleasant to our purses--pleasant to our pride and self-conceit. Then, when the lying spirit comes and whispers to us, by bad thoughts, by bad books, by bad men, that we shall prosper in our wickedness, does God leave us alone to listen to those evil voices without warning? No! He sends His prophets to us, as He sent Micaiah to Ahab, to tell us that the wages of sin is death--to tell us that those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind--to set before us at every turn good or evil, that we may choose between them, and live or die according to our choice. For do not fancy that there are no prophets in our days, unless the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to all who believe, be a dream and a lie. There are prophets nowadays,--yea, I say unto you, and more than prophets. Is not the Bible a prophet? Is not every page in it a prophecy to us, foretelling God's mercies and God's punishments towards men. Is not every holy and wise book, every holy and wise preacher and writer, a prophet, expounding to us God's laws, foretelling to us God's opinions of our deeds, both good and evil? Ay, is not every man a prophet to himself? That "still small voice" in a man's heart, which warns him of what is evil--that feeling which makes him cheerful and free when he has done right, sad and ashamed when he has done wrong--is not that a prophecy in a man's own heart? Truly it is. It is the voice of God within us--it is the Spirit of God striving with our spirits, whether we will hear, or whether we will forbear--setting before us what is righteous, and noble, and pure, and what is manly and God-like--to see whether we will obey that voice, or whether we will obey our own selfish lusts, which tempt us to please ourselves--to pamper ourselves, our greediness, covetousness, ambition, or self-conceit. And again, I say, we have our prophets. Every preacher of righteousness is a prophet. Every good tract is a prophet. That Prayer-book, those Psalms, those Creeds, those Collects, which you take into your mouths every Sunday, what are they but written prophecies, crying unto us with the words of holy men of old, greater than Micaiah, or David, or Elijah, "Hear thou the word of the Lord?" The spirits of those who wrote that Prayer-book--the spirits of just men made perfect, filled with the Spirit of the Lord--they call to us to learn the wisdom which they knew, to avoid the temptations which they conquered, that we may share in the glory in which they shared round the throne of Christ for evermore.
And if you ask me how to try the spirits, how to know whether your own thoughts, whether the sermons which you hear, the books which you read, are speaking to you God's truth, or some lying spirit's falsehood, I can only answer you, "To the law and to the testimony"-- to the Bible; if they speak not according to that word, there is no truth in them. But how to understand the Bible? for the fleshly man understands not the things of God. The fleshly man, he who cares only about pleasing himself, he who goes to the Bible full of self- conceit and selfishness, wanting the Bible to tell him only just what he likes to hear, will only find it a sealed book to him, and will very likely wrest the Scriptures to his own destruction. Take up your Bible humbly, praying to God to shew you its meaning, whether it be pleasant to you or not, and then you will find that God will shew you a blessed meaning in it; He will open your eyes, that you may understand the wondrous things of His law; He will shew you how to try the spirit of all you are taught, and to find out whether it comes from God.