“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.” – Isaiah 38:16
In order to understand what the things are by which men live we must know the conditions under which these words were spoken. Hezekiah was one of the good and faithful kings of Judah, Israel’s southern kingdom. The northern kingdom had fallen hopelessly into idolatry, and had been carried captive to Assyria, never to return; and the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah, had been almost as unfaithful. Under Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, the worship of the Lord had largely given place to the worship of idols, and the holy temple had become defiled. Hezekiah destroyed the idols. He even destroyed the brazen serpent, which had been preserved for seven hundred years or from the time of Israeli’s sojourn in the wilderness, because the people were now making an idol of that. He restored and rededicated the polluted temple, and reestablished worship of the one God. He smote the Philistines, Israel’s ancient foe. He did other great works and brought back to the nation something of its ancient glory and power. But in the midst of this achievement and at the height of his power he was smitten with disease, and the prophet Isaiah, his counsellor and friend, was sent to him by the Lord to tell him that he would not recover, but would die.
Hezekiah was distressed by this judgment, and in humiliation prayed to the Lord. Then the Lord through Isaiah promised that He would reverse the judgment and add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life. Hezekiah asked for a sign which would be to him a proof, just as Moses had asked for a sign when the Lord appeared to him at the burning bush, or as Gideon asked for a sign when God called him from the fields to overthrow the Midianites. Isaiah asked Hezekiah whether he would have the shadow on the dial go backward or forward, upward or downward, ten degrees on the steps. Hezekiah replied that he would have it go backward, and this was done. This satisfied the king and, when he had recovered, he wrote the hymn or song of sorrow and thanksgiving which has been read today as our first lesson.
The Jews had a peculiar dread of death, which amounted to horror. Instead of the bright Christian faith in the resurrection, which now in this day of the Second Coming rests upon a rational foundation, they possessed only the idea common to the nations around them, namely the idea of the lot of disembodied spirits as a sad, joyless, and hopeless one. It has been supposed that the Jews had little or no concept of any personal existence beyond the grave, because no trace of it appears in the early books of the Bible; and they doubtless did have a less clear idea of a life to come than other nations because they had so intense a love of this world. They did not like to talk about what happens at death. The Jews were not chosen by the Lord for their spirituality, but rather the reverse. The thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy makes this quite evident. Their work was to symbolize a spiritual church, not to realize it.
King Hezekiah in the shadow of death had his sorrow turned into joy. But before the joy came, his suffering – physical and mental – had humiliated him. He realized that his repentance had brought the respite of life for fifteen years; and in view of this he was led, all unconsciously, to utter an immortal truth, far in advance of his own understanding: “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.”
To Hezekiah this merely meant that the Lord, because of his humility and his prayer, would give him fifteen more years of natural life. But within the words of our text there shines forth a deeper meaning, namely, that out of the trials that befall us in this world and which are inwardly accepted as permissions of the Divine providence there springs real or spiritual life – not an extension of existence here for fifteen or fifty or five hundred years, but life forevermore; not life for the material body, but life for the soul; and not a mere continuation of existence, but a new concept and realization of what life really means and is. Whether in this world we become deeply conscious of it or not, these troubles, rightly borne, open up new inner realms in the soul. The curtain of the senses is drawn aside and new vistas appear, transcending time and space. Our spiritual environment is changed. All of us at all times are in connection with the unseen world – a connection mainly unconscious on both sides – and if this connection were withdrawn, we could not live at all. But when we are able to meet these hard experiences in the right spirit, when in faith and trust and confidence in the loving providence of the Lord we are able to look above and beyond our senses, then our spiritual environment is changed. Our Heavenly Father gives His angels charge over us, and in their hands they bear us up. We approach nearer to the source of real life. “By these things” – these disappointments, sorrows, crosses ‑ “men live.”
So it is written, “Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest him out of thy law.” “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten.” “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn thy statutes.” “Who are these that are arrayed in white robes, and whence came they?… These are they that came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” “By these things men live,” or, as he says again, “Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption.”
But how hard it is even now in this new age to think of the inner life as the real life, and of true character as being a constant gift of the Lord in Whom alone is life. Sometimes people rebel because afflictions come upon them, thinking that because they have lived a good life their days on earth should be long and happy ones; and if they are not, they are prone to deny that the Lord is omniscient, just, or good. Life to them is the life of the body instead of the presence of the Lord with His immortal gift of love in the soul. He desires to bestow this gift upon us. For this we were made. For this cause our Heavenly Father came into the world, clothing Himself in our nature, that He might bear witness to the truth of the Divine unselfishness, the possibility of the Divine indwelling in human souls as their life and peace, the certainty of life beyond the grave, and of this world’s experience being a preparation for it through faithfulness, obedience, and trust in Him at all times. He came and still comes in all our earthly trials, not only to point out the path for us to follow, but in order that He may abide in us as the life, and lead us to abide in Him. “I am come,” He says, “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” He is leading us all, by different paths, to our eternal mansions. He is leading us all as near to Him as we will let Him. Respecting our freedom always, He is guiding us in the best possible way, by the nearest way that we are willing to take. Every hard experience, especially if we are obedient and well-disposed, leads us nearer to the state in which we trust ever more completely in the Lord’s wise and loving providence over us.
It is by “these things” – the things that lead us away from the love of the world, the experience of sorrow and disappointment with our worldly ideals – that we come really to live.
It is a matter of great significance and one that should call forth our gratitude that we are able to believe that death is not a blasting of our hopes but a step upward and forward, an uplift from appearances to larger realities, an escape from bondage into freedom, from a few things to many things, from shadow into sunshine.
But it is a matter of even greater significance that the glory of that larger existence is dependent upon the right use of that life which is now ours. By what things will men really live the more abundant life of which the Lord tells us? Only through the daily taking up of the cross, by the positive denial of the selfish and the evil, the things that harm one’s self, one’s friend, and one’s fellow men, and instead following the daily path of useful activity in acknowledgment of the Lord. And finally we should accept the ways through which the Divine providence leads us, however dark they may be, as the ways to happiness and peace.
“By these things” – the things done in obedience to the Lord and the sorrows borne in remembrance of His love, His constant presence and leading, by all things done or borne in remembrance of Him – “men live.”
For that is His way. By this He was lifted up and draws unto Him all who follow in His steps.
“He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.
“He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”