The Sure Way To Peace
“O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! Then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea”—Isaiah 48:18
There is something about the very tone and content that claims my immediate attention, for here is a lament from the heart of God. There is a suggestion here that things might not have been what they are, that they needn’t have been what they have been, if only I had hearkened unto His command. There is a suggestion too that this word is not spoken to us by some ruthless dictator seeking to reap vengeance upon a disobedient people, but a Father in heaven Who has a remedy to meet our need if only we are prepared to fulfill the conditions.
Of course, I am full aware that this word was spoken primarily to a very insignificant nation, Judah, yet a people for whom God had a very significant purpose, because you will recall that through them was to be born one who was to be our Saviour. But I am deeply convinced that with equal meaning and authority these words are spoken today to this country, to the church in this country, to this church in which we assemble, and to your life and mine.
There has never been a time when God’s people have not been face to face with a great principle of evil, concentrated perhaps in the life of a city, its social and moral life, yet whatever it may be there has always been that same principle, even though perhaps it has taken many different forms through history. Always there has been a conflict between the upsurge of human pride—the vainglory of man—and the glory of God; always that conflict between the pride of intellect and, on the other hand, integrity of character; always the conflict between the planning of some great Utopia without God Who alone can give anything permanence. This principle is as strong in Chicago today as when those massive walls of Babylon (a far bigger place than Chicago incidentally) enclosed their millions and dominated the whole world.
As I take this passage of Scripture and apply it to your life and to mine, to this city and nation, the whole question is, What is our relationship to these things? As we live in the midst of it all and inevitably mingle amongst it, what is our attitude? What are we doing and how are we doing it? I believe we are warranted in applying to present circumstances everything that we read here of that which plagued and captivated the people of God, and His exposure of their need and His great call to a deliverance. I would not presume to suppose that I am here to speak to a nation, but I do presume to speak to a soul, and in so doing I speak to a nation which is simply composed of millions of such. If each one of us were to act upon and respond to this great lament from the heart of God before it is too late, what a dynamic part you and I could have in the liberty and freedom, release and authority of His church!
Let me therefore share with you that which God has spoken to my heart through this portion of His Word, with the earnest prayer that He will yet cause all of us not just to listen, but to hearken and to do, so that what is spoken from this pulpit has some relevance to what goes on in our lives, and is not just a torrent of words that merely tickles our ears and interests our intellects, but rather the authoritative message of God the Holy Ghost for this church at this time in every department of its life. What value has a ministry unless it has that authority?
As I listen to this lament, and have tried to be silent through the days of this week (that is one of the most difficult things in life, as you have probably discovered!) to expose my own life to its message, I have seen some things here that I want to share with you. In the first place, there is the sadness of a missed responsibility: “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments!” It has often been said that man’s chief end is to glorify God and not himself. I glorify God only when I obey Him, not simply when I patronize Him, or give some adherence to the church. Yes, I am deeply impressed with the simplicity of the road to revival. Just twenty-four hours, obedience in our lives and we would be right in such a floodtide of Holy Ghost blessing that there would not be room enough to contain it. Hence this complaint from the Lord. “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments!”
Of course, there was nothing new in that. It had been plain from the very beginning of God’s dealings with His people that obedience was the key which would unlock the door that would let out all the blessing anybody could take, and disobedience was the sure way to lose it. Here is a passage of Scripture for authority for that statement: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it. But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:15–19).
In case some dispensationalist would say, “This is law and not grace,” lest I imagine that this is for the Jew and not for my own heart and life today in January 1962 in Chicago, let me remind you that the Lord Jesus said: “Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. He that heareth My sayings and doeth them, he it is that I shall liken to a man who built his house upon a rock and when the storms came and the floods descended and the winds blew upon that house, it fell not because it was founded upon a rock,” and that rock was the rock of obedience. God forgives freely by His grace but He expects a high performance from the life that has been forgiven. His free forgiveness and His free mercy are offered to us on the terms of simple faith and total commitment to the sovereignty of Jesus, but immediately there is the demand for totality of performance in the power that He gives. “If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments.”
Yes, the one word which opens the door to the outpouring of the blessing of our heavenly Father is submission, and the one word which shuts it is pride. That is why at the very heart of the Christian revelation there is the cross of Jesus Christ, and that is the place upon which I would ask you to gaze in your soul today: upon Him Who humbled Himself and was obedient unto death, and therefore God hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.
Something of the fruit of this obedience is revealed to us in our text: “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! Then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.” Peace as a river, not a stream that scarcely fills its little bed, not just a babbling, noisy brook at the beginning of its flow, so to speak, but a river far down its course like the mighty Amazon, deep and placid. A river, able to bear great tonnage on its surface, carrying in it the refuse of cities and towns and villages without contamination; a river, not swept by storm nor drained by drought, a great, deep, mighty, placid, flowing river, never anxious as to whether or not it can continue to flow, giving nourishment to all manner of plants and trees and shrubs who dig their roots into it. “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! Then had thy peace been as a river.” Constant fullness, contact with the sinfulest, foulest and most degraded, yes, contact without contamination. An easy, certain, steady, deep, placid flow giving nourishment not to a few, but to hundreds of lives who seek to draw from what you have of the reality of Jesus Christ—a river.
“And thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.” I think (and of course this is only my personal preference) of all God’s creation there is nothing that I love so much as the ocean. I don’t mean the shore at low tide when it’s all dirty and slimy, but right out in the midst where there is no land in sight, and all around there are great forty-foot waves crashing on to that ship. I listen to the roar of them and see the power of them and smell the freshness and loveliness of them. I see them dancing here and there, and I know that underneath are miles and miles of ocean, and the whole thing is so pure, so grand, so powerful!
To many it has not been that way. Peace and righteousness are but a haunting memory because there was a failure at a point of obedience. Would you please notice from our text that it wasn’t a question of failure in the practice of religion? To see it in its context, see the first verse, listen to God launching upon this complaint to His people: “Hear ye this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel.” Yes, they do all that, but not in truth nor in righteousness. There has been a very fair show of worship, but it was all an outward thing and certainly not a matter of the heart because God says: “I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is as iron sinew, and thy brow brass” (Isaiah 48:4).
May the Spirit of God drive it into your mind and heart so that there can be no escaping it—basic to the sadness of this missed responsibility was failure to submit to the will and the purpose of God. Can you not trace lack of peace and righteousness, a lack of liberty and purity, of power and freshness to exactly the same source? At some point and on some issue (it is not my business to enquire where, but the Spirit is doing that as I talk to you in His name), there has been obstinacy, at some place there has been the unbending will and the stubborn mind which would not yield, and insisted on holding on to the reins of life in that situation. Isn’t it amazing what the flesh can do in putting on a remarkable show of piety alongside an unbroken will and an unrepentant heart? It is amazing how far we can go inside a casing that is like steel! There is an argument with heaven, and ever since that took place, God has spoken to you about your associations, your friendships, your habits, your practices, your thoughts. Ah, but there was a stubborn obstinacy at that point and ever since that happened, you said “Goodbye” to peace and righteousness, and you forget it by singing, “It is well with my soul.”
As I thought about this my heart felt sad, but God speaks again about what I have called the surety of a merciful redemption. “For my name’s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain for thee, that I cut thee not off….For mine own sake, even for mine sake, will I do it: for how should my name be polluted? And I will not give my glory unto another” (Isaiah 48:10). I don’t profess to understand this, I merely make it as a statement because I believe it, and I do believe lots of things I don’t understand. Quite clearly the language is that of one who does not force His will arbitrarily upon His creatures, but rather of one who conditions His treatment of us by our response. How simple and how clear is the way by which peace may flow and righteousness sweep over us! Oh, but how long and how hard is the way of rejection! Living my life up to the light I have by His strength, keeping His commandments by His power, and then peace shall be as a river. But if I refuse, something happens that need never happen: “I have refine thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (v. 10).
I want to talk to you about the furnace. Let me be clear about this, that not all suffering is caused by disobedience. The furnace through which I pass in life does not always indicate my unfaithfulness to God. Everybody has some trial or other. There is a skeleton in every cupboard. There is a very big difference between the punishment of the ungodly and the furnace through which God puts His people. Maybe there is a corner around which you are going in life, and I have never been there. There may be a tunnel through which I am passing and you have never been in it. There is therefore a common bond of sympathy that draws us together because this happens to all. If you are not chastened God says you are not sons, but bastards.
If, however, you are unfaithful, then you may expect a furnace the like of which the ungodly man knows nothing. If I speak to some young Christian girl or man who has let go their chastity, God is going to put you through a hell on Earth until you repent, a furnace the like of which you have never known a thing about, that will make you think you are going mad, because you have let go the most cherished thing in life, your own sanctity and chastity. Oh, how many of God’s people today are going through a furnace which need never have been if only they had been willing and obedient.
I don’t talk theory but from my heart and experience. I can recall a time in my life when for almost a year it seemed as if there was a blackout in my soul. I began to talk to other people about the wonderful thing of going through darkness and what God has for us in the darkness—true. I began to speak about the maturity of a Christian, how God can trust him to go through the dark, and therefore he does not need to be dependent upon feelings and emotions—perfectly true. I made a scapegoat of some of the greatest truths of Scripture to excuse my sheer, downright disobedience and sin. Has that ever happened to you?
Amidst all the cruelty, luxury and wickedness of Babylon, the Jews spent seventy years in slavery that need never have been. But they were God’s chosen people, and even though in captivity His promises never let them go. He could not forget that they belonged to Him. His covenant was made with them, and they could not slip out of His grasp, yet they kicked against His will. But you know, the furnace did its work. They were put into it because of their idolatry, and they came out of it never to worship an idol again. The precious thing following their Babylonian captivity was their Scripture which they guarded and kept at all costs; never again did they fall before idol worship.
The greatest tragedy is not pain or suffering, it is not the mystery of this but the fruitlessness of it, that in spite of the fact that God puts me through the furnace, I harden my neck, resist, fail to respond to the fire of affliction. “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them that are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11).
Are you in a spiritual Babylon? If only you hadn’t taken that step out of the will of God! How long have you been there? It took a year for Him to deal with me. How long has He taken to deal with you? Has disobedience involved you in the coil of suffering and difficulty and tragedy from which there seems no escape? Has God been pummeling (may I use that word reverently?) at your heart daily, and it has been like a case of steel? One day, if you are a Christian, you are going to give in; don’t think you can harden your heart to any affliction and suffering and just go on doing it. It lands you in a lost eternity, and it won’t be God’s fault. But if you are a Christian, He is going to have His way with you yet, but it is costing an awful lot to heaven, to you, to somebody else.
I want to tell you that the furnace need not continue. “For my name’s sake…” Blessed truth! Not for my merit, not for anything in myself because the fire and furnace of God’s affliction have done their work when they have brought me just to be as dust and ashes. They have burned until they have left me like that. Does it seem hard when I tell you that is exactly what God wants to do with His people, to make them like that? “He will not give His glory to another” and when I come to recognize that, it cannot be by my merit but for His name’s sake. Let submission take the place of stubbornness. Let utter obedience take the place of rebellion. Let humility take the place of pride, and you are out of the furnace right now! “Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go” (Isaiah 48:17).
There is also here the summons to a mighty recovery: “Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob” (v. 20). The clarion call from the throne of all power and authority is speaking to the depths of my soul: “Get out from your bondage and from under this rebellion, get out!” It was a summons to an exodus. It was a call to separation, and it finds its echo in the call of the Lord to the church in the book of Revelation: “Come forth out of her, my people, that ye be not partaker of her sins and that ye receive not her plagues.”
This is not God saying to you, “Give up a few surface habits.” Of course, if you are a Christian and you go on with the Lord, you don’t want them and that’s all. It is God with the sword of the Word and authority the like of which there is nothing in all the universe, saying to you, “Stop it! Get out from your sin of disobedience and not merely stop fooling with the thing that is on the surface!” Let the sword go down until there is soul surgery, down in the depths of your personality.
Not I, but the Lord says to you today, “Go ye forth!” and the Spirit of God with the authority of the Word says, “Come out, let God burn up that spirit of worldly love, come out from fellowship with darkness and evil.” You know what this means, don’t you? That is what makes us afraid.
It would be a dangerous thing to press an argument to a conclusion by saying that before you can help another you have to go through the same thing yourself. I’m not here to parade the unsaved days of the man who is preaching, but I tell you, when I heard this alarm bell in my own soul and I knew that God called for a holy life from me, and nothing else mattered but an integrity and a transparency that would be right, not by my merit but by His name’s sake, I knew that His call must win and that He must triumph. It was as if I was being pulled out of the quagmire, often against the desire of my own sinful heart, but I was pulled and dragged out of it by a power greater than I. I was so afraid because I said, “Oh, God, if You take me that way, You are going to starve me, I cannot live without this and that. They have become part of my life and character.”
It seemed such a desert between Babylon and Jerusalem. But God has said, “They thirsted not when he led them through the deserts; he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out” (v. 21). “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” Has the furnace done its work in your life? God would speak to you now and say, “My child, the time of your discipline is fulfilled, the time of the furnace is over. I want to take the heat off and the pressure off; I want you to be released and to go free.”