Nothing is more interesting or helpful to us than to be taught the ways of God by a living example-one who is like ourselves in nature and feeling, and who is used of God and empowered by Him to do His will. We see thereby how the grace of God works and where it is hindered ; and not only this, but we see the way in which we ourselves under similar circumstances would act, while we also get a clear perception of what the mind of God is as to such circumstances, how it addresses itself to man, and how man is formed and controlled by it. This nature of the divine ways is explained to us through the medium of the human servant; and we learn on the one hand how God would use him, and on the other how he fails when not simply led by God. We require to know both, because unless we do, we cannot get a clear idea of the divine discipline. Scripture, through an individual example, sets forth to us the nature and character of the circumstances through which God's servant is passing; and as we study and observe his instructions to the individual, we arrive at an understanding of God's mind at the time.
Hezekiah comes before us at a very critical period in Israel's history, and the way he is prepared of God and taught of Him for such an eventful time is very instructive. There is often a great similarity in leading points between the position which we are called to occupy ourselves and that occupied by distinguished servants of God. The points of resemblance between the great and the small in God's household are very marked, and the study of His ways with a leading servant often helps another who is unknown beyond his immediate circle. And yet the ways of God may be as truly learned by him, and he may be as thoroughly disciplined under His hand as the most prominent and distinguished servant.
Hezekiah, in his history, presents to us two things : the first, how he was strengthened to succeed in renewing the testimony of the Lord in a very exemplary way, at a time when everything had sunk to the lowest state, and was to all appearance in irretrievable ruin ; secondly, how he was taught to rest in God, while his soul was brought to a conviction of the end and desolation of everything here. It is very interesting to dwell on a history like this, and to observe how God leads on His servant, uses him to do His will and to walk in His ways, and yet teaches him that, however he has succeeded, or has been a channel of success, still if he turns aside and depends on man, all is forfeited.
Hezekiah's life, in its deep broad lines, is a chequered and deeply instructive one. The first notice we get of him is that he " removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made : for unto those days the children of Israel did bum incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan,"2 Kings 18: 4. This was a bold and decisive act wherewith to open his public career as God's servant, for the high places had existed before, since, and throughout the days of Solomon. (See i Kings 3: 3.) What manner of discipline Hezekiah had already passed through in order to qualify him for such prompt and decided action we are not told.
From the record of his father's ways, and the state of things connected with the testimony of the Lord, we should not be prepared to see him, a young man of twenty-five, immediately on ascending the throne acting with so much vigour and decision. He emerges out of all the waste and debris of former greatness, as if he had no contact with it ; as if he had been taught to separate from and denounce all that surrounded him. He takes his place in the scene like another David visiting his brethren in the valley of Elah. Apart from, and yet among them, he addresses himself to remove everything dishonouring to God. The work he does indicates the school he has learned in, and in which he has obtained his ideas.
The well-trained mind, the more it sees, and the higher the scenes which are presented to it, the more does it require, while it seeks to conform all within its power and province to its own improved convictions. This is the end of education, and the fruit of all extended knowledge ; the better thing being accepted, the inferior is discovered and refused. The way in which we act, when the opportunity for acting comes, discloses the nature of the principles which we have imbibed. Thus the reformation wrought by the young king Hezekiah testified surely that he had been educated in the divine school in no ordinary way. David's discipline in the wilderness prepared him for his valiant engagement with Goliath; and Hezekiah must have been in some other way prepared and exercised, or he could not have met in so masterly a manner the disorder which surrounded him. The disorders themselves thus discipline and test the servant of God. One submits to them, another groans over them, a third meets them with feeble and inadequate remedies, but he who has been taught of God in his mind and spirit what is the true and divine order, can propose or accept nothing less. He makes no compromise-the right thing, and the right thing only, is his measure according to God-and this he insists on whatever it may sweep away.
It is sometimes apparently a very little thing, and a thing long overlooked by other servants of God, which peculiarly indicates the elevated position of the faithful servant. Hezekiah's extermination of the serpent of brass at once shows him to be one whose soul was well disciplined by God for His service; for though we may not always see the discipline, we see fruits which nothing but holy discipline could have fostered and developed. God's honour is first maintained, and Hezekiah is confirmed in strength, and asserts on all sides the rights of his calling. and his true dignity as king of Judah. " 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." But not only did Hezekiah assert and maintain his true place as God's king; he also in a very full and complete way maintained the testimony for God. It is not enough to oppose and resist our enemies, or even to compel them to surrender encroachments ; we must also set forth what is the truth of God. Hezekiah not only proves himself stronger than his enemies, but he also devotes himself to the re-establishment of the testimony of God.
In the first year of his reign, in the first month, opened he the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them. So largely and fully did he effect restoration and procure blessing that it is said, " So there was great joy in Jerusalem : for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there was not the like in Jerusalem," 2 Chron. 30:26. And in chapter 31:20 it is summed up: "And thus did Hezekiah throughout all Judah, and wrought that which was good and right and truth before the Lord his God." To resist evil and introduce good evinces the possession of divine power ; it is not one-sided. Where there is only conviction or persuasion, and not divine power, there will always be marked imperfection. " The legs of the lame are not equal." There may be a great effort to resist the enemy, without a commensurate effort to recover the truth ; while on the other hand there may be an avowed desire to recover the truth, while there is tampering with what is hostile to it; a cry for the suppression of evil without paying any regard to the testimony of God; or a connivance with that which is really opposed to Christ with a profession of His name. Hezekiah is not of either of these orders ; he resists evil and supports the truth of God in its true force and excellence.
The period which I have hastily sketched occurred within the first fourteen years of Hezekiah's reign, a prosperous, useful time; but the more useful anyone is, the more he requires to be brought to an end of himself, and to find that his all is in God. We find some of His servants deeply chastened at first, in order to prepare them for a useful course; and some after a useful period are brought low and afflicted in order that they might learn how truly and fully God, in His own blessed self, is paramount to everything.
This fourteenth year was an eventful one with Hezekiah, for we read, " Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them," 2 Kings 18: 13. And again, " After these things [that is, those which I have glanced at above], and the establishment thereof, Sennacherib king of Assyria came, and entered into Judah " ; also in those days was Hezekiah sick unto death ; 2 Chron. 32: i. Trial from without and from within is upon him. His sickness must have occurred in the fourteenth year of his reign, for, from his sickness, fifteen years were added unto his life ; and as he reigned only twenty-nine years, it must therefore have occurred in the fourteenth year. Its being related as subsequent to the second invasion by Sennacherib is, I conclude, on account of its having a typical import: for Hezekiah's exercises during his sickness set forth what Israel will go through before their final deliverance. It is a beautiful and interesting sight to behold Hezekiah for fourteen years (twice seven, a doubly perfect period) walking on the earth before God in dignity and faithfulness.
But now we have to observe him and to learn from him in far different circumstances, even as one oppressed and intimidated by the king of Assyria ; and deeply and sorely exercised in his own soul before God. He appears to have lost his faith in the first invasion of Sennacherib, because we can hardly imagine that Sennacherib persisted in his first invasion after receiving the fine which he had imposed. The history is simply this : In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah's reign, Sennacherib came up and laid siege to certain cities of Judah. At that time Hezekiah bought him off and stipulated to pay him a certain sum or ransom. Subsequent to this Sennacherib came up again (possibly on his return from Egypt), and then he threatened Jerusalem; and it was between these two invasions that Hezekiah by a great sickness was led into such deep exercise of soul. For fourteen years he had walked with God and prospered. Then, for the first time, failure appears in his course. Instead of repelling the invasion of the king of Assyria, as he would at one time have done, he buys him off.
At the beginning of his reign, without any apparent resources, he had freed himself from the king of Assyria and served him not. Whereas now, after being established in success and invested with power on every side, there is inability and confessed powerlessness to maintain the position which was taken when nothing but faith had authorised him to assume it. What a commentary is this on the failure of God's servants! But it is easily accounted for. When I am serving God in dependence on Him, I see His way for me, and I am bold in it, even though I may see no means at all by which I can be maintained in it; but when I begin to rest in the fruits of my faithfulness, the possessions and resources given me of God, I fear to imperil them, if not holding them from Him and with Him. Thus was it with Hezekiah. He who had so fearlessly assumed his true place, and the divine rights vested in him, cannot maintain it or them without stooping to the unworthy expedient of buying off him whom he had set at defiance when his faith was in vigour. What a contrast between the confidence which faith in God gives and that which is derived from the largest amount of human resources I Hezekiah, with nothing but God, can refuse to serve the king of Assyria : Hezekiah surrounded with great power and prosperity sinks into the place of a vassal.
It was at this juncture, I assume, that his sickness was inflicted. And surely there was a needs-be for it. In this sickness God will teach him death, and the terribleness of it to man as man. What can be more touching than Hezekiah's own account of the exercises of his soul when he contemplates death. The Lord intimates to him through the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 38). " Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live. Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, saying, I beseech thee, 0 Lord, remember now 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." (See 2 Kings 20 : 3.) This is an exercise and discipline which every saint, one way or another, must enter into and endure. This moment, dreadful to nature, must be passed through. What a moment! when all that man cares for, all that connects him with his own works and will, sinks into dissolution. Man as he is himself no longer exists. The greater his place here-the more extended his occupation-the more pleasing his associations-the more engaged his affections, the more terrible the wrench to which he is subjected in death.
Hezekiah was an excellent and an eminently useful man, one who had walked before God in truth and with a perfect heart. His suffering in view of death was not because of a doubt of his final salvation, but it was the contemplation of death, as that which must sever him from all that interested and engaged him here. Could any man who felt himself the centre of usefulness and power here, independently of other considerations, take it lightly that he should be deprived of all this position and sphere of interest by the stem power of death?
Can any one realise what it is to be severed from all he loves and cares for as a man, from all who care for him, and consider him a link to their existence, and not sympathise with Hezekiah, instead of condemning him?
The experience of Hezekiah tells us how a man of Goda regenerate soul-feels the wrench. Of course we are not taking into account how a Christian, knowing that he has life in Christ at the other side of the grave, apart from and above the flesh, would pass through this ordeal. Yet he, too, must pass through it. And that he does so victoriously is not because it is less real to him than it was to Hezekiah, but because he has received, through grace, life in the risen Christ-a fife which confers on him infinitely more than he loses in death. But it is necessary in order that we should understand that the giving up of our existence as man is a thing that must be now learnt morally in the cross of Christ ; and that this giving up (that is, death) is no light thing; nay, that it is in itself an exceeding bitter thing, but yet a thing that must be ; and that a man's goodness and usefulness here, instead of mitigating the desperateness of the blow, aggravates it and imparts a deeper agony to it.
The actual surrender of my existence as a man is not the mere pain of dying as a lower animal suffers; it is the termination of my connection with all that interests and attracts me, and makes life valuable and great. The bitterness of death is past when one is so worn by sorrow or sickness that he longs for dissolution; but to be severed from everything here Without a heavenly hope to be no more here for God or for man, this is its bitterness : and this Hezekiah expresses when he says, " 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.... Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward."
This writing of Hezekiah, it will be seen, is the Spirit's account of the exercise which took place in him during this severe discipline. But when he comes to the words, " 0 Lord, I am oppressed: undertake for me," there is evidently a new light in his soul ; he enters into resurrection -in hope. He can now say, " 0 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.... Thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption (there is also the sense of the Lord's forgiveness] : for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.... The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day."
The discipline has effected its blessed purpose. A terrible ordeal it was, but none other can lead the soul to rest entirely in God as the spring and fountain of life. If I am alive with God, death to man and to man's things becomes small to me; but then, to realise the actual blessedness of living by the Son of God, and unto God in a life pleasing and suited to Him, I must needs know and realise my death as a man. This is no light thing, for it is the summing up and END of a discipline. If we were to reckon ourselves dead, and to allow the Spirit to maintain Christ in us in everything, this discipline would only promote what we had accepted in the power of life, but death -moral death-is a very real and in itself a very bitter thing ; and it is only in proportion as we are in the life of Christ that we are able to accept it joyfully, and to say, " The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day."
Hezekiah has now passed through wonderful experience. He has known what it is to be in the valley of the shadow of death; he has seen the lights here go out one by one-he has felt the silver cord loosening, and has known the mighty power of God in raising him up again. He has been well disciplined by the tender hand of God: will he now walk as thus taught and renewed in knowledge? The remainder of the history of Hezekiah sets before us the testing to which one, educated as he has been, is exposed ; how he is ensnared, and yet how he gives evidence of the benefit of the discipline through which he has passed. It seems a paradox, that one should exhibit special weakness and special strength, after a season of deep and blessed discipline ; but so this. The weakness of the nature is exposed, and the strength of the grace conferred is declared also.
It is a mistake which is sometimes made, to think that grace in a way cloaks the flesh and screens it from discovery. It is quite true that grace would suppress and subdue the flesh, but it never imparts to it a false colour and appearance. On the contrary, where there is most grace, there the hideousness of flesh is most exposed, if it be not subdued and judged. Thus it is not uncommon to see an outbreak of the flesh, or its tendency in nature exposed, where there is a true deep vein of grace. Peter denies the Lord : his flesh is exposed, while the deep vein of grace in his soul leads him to repentance. Paul is enriched in his soul with the treasures of glory, and consequent thereon, there is a need for a check on the flesh, which otherwise might not have betrayed itself. The evil in me, in fact, is brought to light through grace, while I am also more distinctly led on by grace. The evil ought to be discovered before it works, and if I am walking near the Lord it will be ; but if not, being in grace does not prevent the disclosure of it. If seen and judged before God, it is put away without being publicly betrayed in acts ; but if not, grace will not screen it; it will be brought to light, and will there receive judgment from God as it had not received judgment from oneself : for if we judged ourselves we should not be judged. The more we have advanced in grace, the more exposure there will be, if the flesh be not subdued by the grace conferred on us ; that is, if we arc not walking in dependence on God, from whom we have received the grace.
Hezekiah, in the matter of the ambassadors from Babylon, betrays his nature ; he who in deep exercise of soul had vowed, " I will go softly all my days," is still not proof against the flattery of the world. " Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and shewed them all 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 shewed them not."
This man who, through such discipline, had learned death, is still not proof against being recognised here and made much of by Babylon. God's servant ought to have refused any such recognition; but he gave way, and consequently he brought judgment on his house. What a striking evidence of how irretrievable man is in his nature, and that when he is acknowledged and made much of, then it is that he is tested. " As the refining pot to silver, so is man to his praise." The simple fact of the gratification which it affords our flesh to be recognised and exalted is proof positive of the danger attendant on it to us. Hezekiah falls beneath it! What a fall for a man who, in exercise of soul, had learnt death and resurrection! Babylon embodies in principle all the selfish independent advancement of this world. To be acknowledged by it is too much for Hezekiah, and the acknowledgment which he in his unbelief and vanity accepts entails judgment on his family ; for the favour of the world is deceitful. Hezekiah's weak point is exposed, while judgment is inflicted not only on himself, but on his house: in the judgment on his family his nature is judged, and not merely the offence which was the fruit of the nature.
But while in this matter we see such a sad exposure, in what follows, Hezekiah is a bright example to us of how a man should act when under apparently overwhelming trials. If the flattery of Babylon discloses weakness and vanity, as is always the tendency in worldly prosperity, the invasion and fearful threatening of the Assyrian (2 Kings 18 : 17) only brings to light the strength of his reliance on God. The great discipline which he has passed through has not been ineffectual. To man he preserves a calm, imperturbable dignity. " The king's commandment," with reference to the messengers sent by the king of Assyria, was, " Answer him not a word," but to the Lord he unburdens his heart, and spreads out before Him all his distress. He had before in weakness essayed to buy off the invader ; but now he rent his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the Lord. His position and bearing now is the very opposite to what it was with the Babylonish ambassadors; and truly indicative of one who had been raised out of death-who had learned what death really is ; he is here as nothing in himself, but his hope is in God.
When the Lord promised Hezekiah recovery from his sickness, He also promised him deliverance from the Assyrian; 2 Kings 20: 6. The victory of the Lord is a complete one, over oneself, and over every other oppressor; but the heart has to learn as having passed through death, that it can endure better when there is death and pressure before it than when there is acknowledgment and flattering recognition. Hezekiah understands death, and what God is in death, and therefore under the pressure of the Assyrian he turns to God; whereas when he is courted and flattered by the ambassadors of Babylon, he falls under the fatal influence of that system which they personate, and his children and nation in God's government must suffer accordingly. Hezekiah's marvellous deliverance from the Assyrians by the interposition of God is the last event of his life which is recorded in Scripture, and it not inaptly closes the history of his discipline. He has learned that all flesh is grass, and God becomes all in all before his soul. When we have come to this, the purpose of all discipline has been effected. May we learn and walk in patience, that we may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing!