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Occational Letters: Standing out for God

D Newell, Glasgow

The other day I stumbled across a webpage entitled (rather optimistically, I thought) "How to become an outstanding person in twelve weeks". Looking at my diary, I don’t think I am going to make it. But the Bible certainly introduces us to men who in various ways stood out from their peers. With Saul, it was primarily a matter of physical stature: "when he stood among the people, he was higher than any of the people from his shoulders and upward" (1 Sam 10.23).

At other times, however, the spiritual takes precedence. King Hezekiah lived in between the two worst kings in Judah’s national history: his father was an unrelenting idolater, and his long-reigning son was the rebellious but finally repentant Manasseh. Who would have thought that such a man as the apostate Ahaz could sire such a son as the godly Hezekiah? Our God is never hamstrung by the results of genetic predisposition or human education – He intervenes as He will in irresistible sovereign grace. Indeed, if He did not, there would be no salvation or blessing for men totally ruined by Adam’s sin. And so, in the providence of God, after Ahaz came Hezekiah: out from tainted soil and damaged stock grew a flourishing, fruitful plant. All jewellers know that a dark backcloth effectively sets off the brightness of a shining gemstone. But the biblical narrator wants us to get the point that Hezekiah was not simply a good man when contrasted with his immediate predecessor. We are told that 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" (2 Kings 18.5-6).

Remarkable, isn’t it? Among all Judah’s kings Hezekiah stood out for his trust in the Lord. And this confidence led him into a pathway of deliberate, systematic, practical obedience. After all, biblical faith is far more than mere mental assent to dogma, or so much theological hot air. That may influence the lips but it never truly touches the life. In The Pilgrim’s Progress Christian and Hopeful, journeying to the Celestial City, come across a fake pilgrim called Talkative, a man so glib in peddling the right phrases and orthodox sentiments that even Hopeful is fooled into thinking him a genuine believer. But Christian can see past the plausible surface: "This man is for any company, and for any talk; as he talketh now with you, so will he talk when he is on the ale-bench; and the more drink he hath in his crown, the more of these things he hath in his mouth. Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith."

Hezekiah’s faith, by contrast, was not empty words. It was a solid dependence upon Jehovah demonstrated in continual loyalty to His commands: his talk was backed by his walk. Chapters 29 to 31 of 2 Chronicles record his industrious efforts to bring a backsliding country back into line with God’s revealed will. He testified to the reality of his faith by his toil for the Lord: "And thus did Hezekiah throughout all Judah, and wrought that which was good and right and truth before the Lord his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, and in the law, and in the commandments, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart, and prospered" (2 Chr 31.20-21).

In one sense, of course, faith is visible only to God; but in another sense it is evidenced down here in right behaviour, for "faith without works is dead" (James 2.20). It is therefore worth pausing a while to consider the inspired historian’s summary of Hezekiah’s activity. We learn first the extent of his work: "thus did Hezekiah throughout all Judah". His spiritual energies were not confined to the capital or its immediate environs – rather, he reached out to the borders of his kingdom. He felt a responsibility for the whole geographical area entrusted to his care as king of Judah. Believers today also have clear spheres of labour. The Lord sovereignly saves us and places us in different assemblies of His people so that we might faithfully and humbly exercise the gifts He has given us for the upbuilding of the saints. Only as we all pull our weight in our local church can it fulfil its character as an expression of the body of Christ. Thus Paul commended Philemon for his ministry: "we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother" (Philem v.7). Further, despite its wide scope Hezekiah tolerated no compromise in the quality of his work, for he "wrought that which was good and right and truth". What he did was kind, morally upright and faithful. Could the same be said of the little I do for God?

It is especially important to note the measure of his work. He "wrought that which was good and right and truth before the Lord his God". The language is not that of Hezekiah’s entry on his workplace self-assessment form. No, God alone is the true arbiter of His people’s labours, for human judgment is all too easily blinded by complacency, partiality or envy. The flattering eulogies delivered at funerals are not the final verdict. Whatever others may think it is God’s view of our service that matters, and we must therefore seek to work as in His sight, because "all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do" (Heb 4.13). This explains the consistency of his work: "in every work that he began…he did it with all his heart". Don’t miss that little word "every". Hezekiah did not divide divine service into the important and the trivial, devoting his attention to the one and not the other. Do I study conscientiously when invited to speak at a large gathering, but give minimal preparation to the breaking of bread meeting in my own small assembly? One great feature of God’s Perfect Servant was that He did "all things well" (Mk 7.37).

More, Hezekiah had a clear focus for his work: "the service of the house of God". In other words, he prioritized the Temple and its God-given ritual. The New Testament application is spelled out by Paul, who informs us that today "the house of God…is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim 3.15). Just as Hezekiah concentrated on the activities of the Temple so we are to dedicate our time and energy to the assembly in which God has placed us. That means, at the very least, being there. Nor could Hezekiah act according to his fancy, for the authority for his work was "the law, and…the commandments". God’s work must be done God’s way. He has commanded both what we do and how we do it, as David discovered to his cost in 1 Chronicles 13.6-12. There was only one way safely and reverently to transport the ark. Yet Hezekiah was not so immersed in external details as to forget the ultimate goal of his work, which was "to seek his God". Behind all ministry is the great aim of honouring God. This stimulated zeal for his work, for it was done "with all his heart". If backsliding starts in the heart (Prov 14.14) so does genuine devotedness to the Lord (2 Chr 34.31), for out of the heart are the "issues of life" (Prov 4.23). May we be wholehearted for our God.

This background contextualises the simple temporal phrase which starts ch.32: "After these things, and the establishment thereof, Sennacherib king of Assyria came, and entered into Judah, and encamped against the fenced cities." After what things? After all those godly activities of the previous three chapters. We might have thought that Hezekiah’s spiritual fervour would have been rewarded with external tranquillity, but no, his land was invaded by a foreign power. Sometimes it seems that when we do what is right things go wrong. The man who so outstandingly trusted in and toiled for the Lord now faced severe testing by the Lord. But never forget that outward circumstances are in themselves no guide to divine approval, for adversity may come as a chastisement for sin or as a test of faith. Scripture alone is the infallible measure of what is right. And the king who esteemed God so highly continued to do what was right even when facing imminent peril, for he steadfastly encouraged his people to trust Jehovah: "Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him: With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles. And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah" (2 Chr 32.7-8). Those who trust the Lord, especially amidst the pressures of affliction, inspire others to do the same. That’s a good way to stand out.

To be continued.


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