Francis Bourdillon, 1864
"In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not live." Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: "Go and tell Hezekiah, 'This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city. "'This is the LORD's sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.'" So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.
A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah after his illness and recovery: I said, "In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?" I said, "I will not again see the LORD, the LORD, in the land of the living; no longer will I look on mankind, or be with those who now dwell in this world. Like a shepherd's tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me. Like a weaver I have rolled up my life, and he has cut me off from the loom; day and night you made an end of me. I waited patiently till dawn, but like a lion he broke all my bones; day and night you made an end of me. I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!"
But what can I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too. You restored me to health and let me live. Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living — they praise you, as I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness. The LORD will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the LORD. Isaiah had said, "Prepare a poultice of figs and apply it to the boil, and he will recover." Hezekiah had asked, "What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the LORD?"
Hezekiah had a double warning. His sickness was itself a warning, and God sent him another special warning by the prophet: "Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not live!"
God does not in general send these special warnings; but we have His holy Word continually to warn us, and every sickness is a warning too — and both come to us with this message: "Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not live!"
The Word of God tells us that we must die — and sickness also should remind us of death and lead us to prepare. Not that we ought to put it off to a time of sickness. Far from it. We ought always to live in a state of preparation. But God is so gracious that He sends us warnings to make us more serious and in earnest — and sickness is one of them. It says to us, "Put your house in order!" That is, not merely put your worldly concerns straight — but also and above all, attend to your soul.
Hezekiah wished much to live longer, and that even when God plainly told him that it was His will that he should die. Hezekiah wished to live. The apostle Paul, on the other hand, desired to die, "to depart and to be with Christ."
What are we to think? Was Hezekiah wrong? We must not say that, for God granted his wish and let him live longer. He was not wrong — and yet, as far as we can judge, it seems that Paul had reached a higher point in spirituality of mind than he.
God has given us a natural love of life — and it is not wrong to wish to live. But one who, like the apostle, desires "to depart and to be with Christ" — has received a still higher gift from God. Yet Paul was quite willing to stay in this world, as long as he could be useful in his Master's cause; in fact, he placed himself entirely at the will of God, to live or to die. And this is just what we all should do.
And after all, perhaps there was not so much difference between the two, as appears at first sight. Paul was willing to live, if he could be useful in God's service. Hezekiah, it appears, wished to live, not merely for the enjoyments of life, but that he might praise God and make known His truth. "The grave," he says, "cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living — they praise you, as I do this day."
Besides, even godly people do not always feel alike on all points, and the love of life is stronger in some believers than in others.
It was a very remarkable thing that God should not only prolong Hezekiah's life in answer to his prayer — but also tell him exactly how much longer he was to live.
In general we know not how long we have to live, nor which year will be our last — but Hezekiah had God's own word that he would live fifteen years after his illness. To assure him that he would live and not die, a miracle was wrought — the sun-dial went back ten degrees. It was a solemn thing to be brought so near to the grave — and then to be restored to life. Through all the years that followed, Hezekiah can never, one would think, have lost the impression of that time. After all, death was but put off for awhile. Looking back upon the fifteen years as we do now, the difference between the two times seems almost nothing — so completely does a short space of time become swallowed up in a long space. Fifteen years, more or less, seem of small consequence — now that two thousand, five hundred years have passed since.
But what are two thousand years compared to eternity? How short will seem all our spaces of time, nay, our whole life here below — when we look back on them from the endless ages of eternity!
We do not know how soon this short life will end. We do not know how near we are to eternity. Our circumstances, therefore, are even more solemn than those of Hezekiah. He knew that he was to live fifteen years longer — we know not that we shall live even so many days. Everything bids us to set our house in order and be ready for the great change. Everything warns us not to put off the great work of preparation.
If sickness comes — that is a direct warning from God. If health is continued — still we have warnings all around us, that life is only for a time. It is in very mercy that God places us where we must continually have to do with sickness and death in some way or another — that so we may not live, as if we were to live here forever.
Yet how many seem to forget this simple truth: "You shall die — and not live!" And how many are taking no pains to put their house in order! They acknowledge that they must die, and that they know not when, and they profess to feel the deep importance of being prepared; but there is a sad lack of consistency between what they say and what they do. All around them bids them be serious — yet they are thoughtless; many a warning comes to tell them to prepare — yet day after day and year after year, they live unprepared! How foolish!
Sickness is one warning — and recovery from sickness is another. God still hears prayer, and often, no doubt, delivers from death in answer to prayer. When life is thus, as it were, given afresh — then how solemn should the thoughts be — and how earnest should be the desire to live henceforth to God! Life is restored, but no one knows for how long — let what remains be devoted to God! Let there be . . .
no more carelessness about the soul,
no more forgetfulness of God, and
no more giving up of oneself to the things of the world.
Death has been near — let it not be forgotten. The eternal world has been in view — let it be always henceforth borne in mind.
Was the house out of order before? Was the soul not right with its Maker? Was the heart not at peace? Had there been no seeking of Christ, no heart-belief in Him, no repentance for sin? How gracious that life was not cut short! The barren fig tree has been spared, though we know not for how long. May fruit now appear.
God does not spare us, simply that we should live as we did before. A recovery from sickness, should leave its mark upon us. Whatever we were before — it should be seen now that we are living, not for time — but for eternity; not to self — but to God!