Death: Praying in the Will of God
November 23rd, 1975 @ 8:15 AM
PRAYER AND THE WILL OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-23-75 8:15 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Prayer and the Will of God. It is an expounding of chapters 38 and 39 in the Book of Isaiah. In our preaching through the writings of this tremendous and greatest of all prophets, we have, last Sunday and this Sunday, been privileged to follow through the historical portion in his prophecy. Beginning next Sunday, we start with chapter 40, and from chapters 40 to 66, incomparably the greatest piece of literature, of poetry, of encouragement and comfort, of truth in prophecy to be found in all human literature and in the Word of God. Chapter 38 begins:
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.
Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord,
And said, Remember now, O Lord, I beseech Thee, 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.
Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying,
Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.
And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.
And this shall be a sign unto thee from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that He hath spoken:
Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.
Now chapter 39:
At that time Merodach-Baladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah: for he had heard that he had been sick, and was recovered.
And Hezekiah was glad of them, and showed them the house of his precious things . . . and all of his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah showed them not.
Then came Isaiah the prophet unto King Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they? And Hezekiah said, They come from a far country unto me, even from Babylon.
Then said he, What have they seen in thine house? Isaiah asked, What have they seen in thine house? King Hezekiah answered, All that is in mine house they have seen: there is nothing among my treasures I have not showed them.
Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord of hosts:
Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord.
And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, they shall take away; and they shall be eunuchs to serve in the palace of the king of Babylon,
One of which was Daniel, three other of which are Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, slaves, eunuchs, in the house of the king of Babylon [Daniel 1:7].
There is something in this passage that bears to us an awesome and heavy burden. When we read the story of the illness of Hezekiah, "And he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed" [Isaiah 38:2], after God had said to him, "Set your house in order, you shall die, and not live" [Isaiah 38:1], and when the Lord says, "I have heard thy prayers, and I have seen thy tears; I shall add to thy days fifteen years" [Isaiah 38:5], when we read that, we think, "How wonderful and how marvelous, how glorious, God answering prayer." But out of that petition of Hezekiah came the destruction of the nation and the carrying away of the people into captivity, into slavery. How much better had it been had the king prayed, "Lord, not that I live, not to add fifteen years to my life," how much better had it been had he prayed, "Lord, as God shall choose what is best, as God’s will may be done, so Lord I am Thy servant. Bring to pass in my life either this immediate and impending death, or length of days as God may see fit, as God may choose what is best." But Hezekiah did not pray that prayer; he prayed that God remembering him would add to the years of his life, that he not die [Isaiah 38:1-3].
Now what happened out of the answer to that prayer? [Isaiah 38:4-5]. Two things. First of all, the destruction of the nation: Hezekiah had a son born in those fifteen years of extended life. His name was Manasseh [2 Kings 21:1-3]. And because of the sins of Manasseh, God refused to have mercy upon the people or the nation. One of the most unusual things that we read in Scripture is how emphatically God says, "Because of the sins of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah, I will not pardon the iniquity of this nation" [2 Kings 23:26-27, 24:3-4]. Now I’m going to read it to you. In 2 Kings, chapter 21, Manasseh was twelve years old, that is, he was born three years after God extended the life of Hezekiah fifteen years.
Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem . . .
And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen . . .
He built heathen altars to heathen gods in the two courts of the great temple of the Lord God.
And he made his son pass through the fire . . .
[2 Kings 21:1-6]
that is, he offered his own flesh and blood unto Molech.
And Manasseh seduced the people to do more evil than did the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the children of Israel.
And the Lord spake by His servants the prophets, saying,
Because Manasseh king of Judah hath done these abominations, and hath done wickedly above all that the Amorites did . . . and hath made Judah to sin with his idols:
Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that when a man hears it he will not believe it. . .
Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; beside his sin wherewith he made Judah to sin, in doing that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.
[2 Kings 21:9-12, 16]
And it continues on. "And like unto Josiah," who was the grandson of Manasseh,
And like unto Josiah was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose any like him.
Notwithstanding, notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked Him withal.
And the Lord said, I will remove Judah out of My sight, as I have removed Israel, and will cast off this city Jerusalem which I have chosen.
[2 Kings 23:25-27]
Now we continue on; it just goes on and on what God says about Manasseh. Now the next chapter, the twenty-fourth chapter:
In the days, in the days of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon . . .
And the Lord sent him against Jerusalem, to destroy it, according to the word of Jehovah, which He spake by His servants the prophets.
Surely at the commandment of the Lord came this upon Judah, to remove them out of His sight, because of the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he did;
And for the innocent blood that he shed: for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood; which the Lord would not pardon, which God would not pardon, which God would not pardon.
[2 Kings 24:1-4]
Now that continues on. It is not just in the history of this book. Listen to this from Jeremiah:
Then said the Lord unto me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me, yet My mind could not be toward this people: cast them out of My sight, and let them go. It shall come to pass, if they say unto thee, Whither shall we go forth? then thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord; Such as for death, to death; and such as for the sword, to the sword; and such as for the famine, to the famine; and such as for slavery, to slavery. And I will appoint over them four kinds, saith the Lord: the sword to slay, and the dogs to tear, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and destroy. And I will cause them to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem.
Now we say, "What a marvelous thing that God answered his prayer, and added to his life fifteen years" [Isaiah 38:5]. But out of that answered prayer came the destruction of Judah, and the destruction of the Holy City, and the destruction of the holy temple, and the carrying away of the people into slavery [2 Kings 23:26-27, 24:3-4].
There’s another thing that came out of those fifteen years that God added to his life. At that time Merodach-Baladan, the son of Baladan, the king of Babylon [Isaiah 39:1], he was the crown prince; he was the Prince of Wales. When the illness of Hezekiah came to the ears of the king of Babylon – now Babylon was then just a little province south of Nineveh, the capital of the great empire of Assyria – but the king of Babylon had in his mind the destruction of the Assyrian Empire and the elevation of Babylon to be first among all of the cities of the earth and the kingdoms of mankind. And so, in order to cultivate Hezekiah – he was getting ready for an insurrection against the king of Assyria – in order to cultivate the sympathies of Hezekiah, why, when he heard that he’d been sick and how God had answered his prayer and given him fifteen years, why, he sent his, the king of Babylon sent his son, sent the Prince of Wales, the heir apparent, the next king, he sent him to Jerusalem in order to congratulate Hezekiah, and Hezekiah proud and lifted up [Isaiah 39:1-2]. Isn’t that remarkable, how a man of God can be turned in his face and in his heart and in his life?
The greatest Baptist denominational statesman when I was a youth growing up was a man that you could turn like a pivot by complimenting him, a tremendous man, the president of one of our great and mighty institutions. The leading Baptist, and elected so of the whole earth, you could turn him around with a compliment, flattery. This was Hezekiah, this was Hezekiah. And because of the favor of God upon him, in pride, lifted up, all of these things did he lay his treasures, and his gold and silver and dominions and all, spread it in pride before this next king of Babylon. [Isaiah] said, "The days will come when ever thing you have showed them will be carried thither, including the slavery of the people, and the eunuchs of your own sons, serving in the house, in the palace, of the king of Babylon" [Isaiah 39:3-7].
All right, what is this message? It is very plain, it is very plain. When a man prays, when a man prays, always, always, "Lord, not my will," God knows best, God chooses best, God sees best, "Lord, not my will. Lord, Thy will be done" [Luke 22:42]. Now, we’re going to take one phase of it. We have time just to discuss one phase of it, and that is death. This was the thing that Hezekiah faced. This is the thing that Hezekiah prayed over, for God said, "Set your house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live" [Isaiah 38:1]. And Hezekiah prayed against the day of his dying. Now, what is it for a man to die? Is that an awesome and a dreaded and a terrible providence that we die? "Thou shalt die, and not live [Isaiah 38:1]. Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and wept sore, and prayed and begged God to add years to his life" [Isaiah 38:2-3]. Let us look first at the attitude of the children of the Almighty in the Bible.
Let us look first as David looked upon death in his family. In the twelfth chapter of 2 Samuel, the Lord says to David, "This child that is born of Bathsheba shall die. The child shall die" [2 Samuel 12:14]. And David sat in sackcloth and in ashes, and prayed to God, and refused to eat, and begged God for the life of the child. And the child died according to the word of the Lord [2 Samuel 12:16-18]. And David said, "I shall go to him, he shall not come back to me" [2 Samuel 12:23]. Death to David was a being with these who in the circle of his home and family and whom he loved had preceded him to glory. In the Old Testament, there is a phrase used to describe the death of the patriarchs, "And he was gathered unto his fathers" [Judges 2:10], or, "he was gathered unto his people" [Genesis 25:8, 35:29]. And the Lord Jesus used that as the great argument and basis for the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and that we live in a better world to come. For the Lord said, He is described as the God of Abraham, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And then the Lord added, "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" [Matthew 22:32]. In the Old Testament, the idea ever was in the hearts of the people that when they died they went to be with their people.
What is it in the life of our Lord? He said, concerning His death, "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter, the Paraclete, will not come; but if I go away, I will send Him unto you" [John 16:7]. His death was the avenue, the opening of the door by which God poured out His Holy Spirit in the earth. And instead of a king somewhere in the earth, we have a King anywhere in the earth. We can talk to Him, and pray to Him, and feel His divine presence and the blessedness of His nearness anywhere we bow down and talk to God in the Holy Spirit.
What is it in the life of the apostle Paul? In the first chapter of the Philippian letter he says, "For I am in a strait betwixt two," being in prison and facing execution, "For I am in a strait betwixt two. I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better; nevertheless to abide in the flesh is best for you [Philippians 1:23-24]. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is a gain" [Philippians 1:21]. All of these men of God and children of the Lord in the Old Testament looked upon death as the avenue, the door, the open entrance by which we enter into the fellowship and company of God’s redeemed.
Now, I must speak about our attitude toward death. God says it is better over there than it is here. And the Lord delineates that heavenly blessing with so many beautiful and wonderful revelations. God says that, "In that world that is to come, we shall have a new and a better body" [Revelation 21:1-5]. There’ll be no blind eyes. The governor of the state two days ago called me on the phone and said, "The legislature has given into my hands the care of the blind and the crippled and the needy in the state of Texas, and I just wondered if you would serve upon that board?" I have so much to do, I cannot begin to put my arms around it, but how would you refuse an invitation and appeal like that? I told the governor, "Yes, yes, I will serve." But there’ll be no blind eyes in heaven. And there’ll be no lame and halt and crippled in heaven. And there’ll be no old and senile in heaven. It is depicted to us in Christ’s resurrection [Matthew 28:5-7] and in the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God, the doctrine of the resurrection from among the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. God shall give us a new body, one in which we shall never grow old, and never be hurt, and never die [1 Corinthians 15:51-55]. We shall have in that other and beautiful world; we shall have a glorious company of the redeemed. We shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and God’s saints of all ages, and we shall sit down with Jesus our Lord [Matthew 8:11].
We sing once in a while a song that’s in the book; we sing a song about Jesus serving us manna, breaking bread for us, and the Lord Himself shall feed us, and shall serve us. Think of breaking bread with the Lord Jesus, sitting down with the Lord Jesus. Think of how heavenly and how precious. And think of all that God hath in store for us who love Him. He says in the prophet, and quoted in the second chapter of 1 Corinthians by the apostle Paul, the Lord says, "Eye has never seen, and ear has never heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, those good things God hath prepared for those who love Him" [1 Corinthians 2:9].
Now, why is it that we have such reluctance, such reluctance to go to be with the Lord? Why? What I am fearful of is, it is a sign overt and undeniable that we don’t believe in the promises of our Lord, and we are reluctant to accept them from His gracious hands. Because our efforts in this life are to do all that we can to grasp to that last breath, and instead of looking upon death as a marvelous and incomparable entrance into glory, we look upon it in dread and in horror as though it were an awesome and terrifying judgment. So, when our people come to the end of the way, there are all kinds of gadgets that they hang up and lay down and scatter around in order to keep this protoplasm alive just a little while longer. He’s not alive now, but in my younger days, there was a great scientist by the name of Dr. Alexis Carrel. And Dr. Alexis Carrel kept a chicken heart alive, beating, throbbing, a chicken heart alive for twenty-seven years. And after twenty-seven years, he ceased the experiment because he found he could keep it alive forever, feeding it and taking the waste away. So it is that science is beginning to do with these protoplasmic bodies. They have learned that they can keep them alive by mechanical means. And in the headlines of our papers there have been day after day, and now week after week, an instance of keeping protoplasm alive though the child is dead. Why that? I am afraid it is because we don’t believe in the promises of God, that it is better over there than it is here [Philippians 1:21-23]. Why would we be reluctant to go into all of the beauties and the glories that God hath prepared for us who look in faith and love and forgiveness and trust to Him? [1 Corinthians 2:9]. Why would we be reluctant, unless it is that we just don’t accept really these things that God has told us? We give lip service to them. "Now that’s nomenclature that the preacher uses at a memorial service, but actually there’s no truth in it at all. There’s no resurrection from among the dead, and there’s no beautiful and golden city, and there’s no company of the redeemed, and there’s no beautiful fellowship with God and God’s people." It must be we don’t believe.
And how sad some of these things that I see happen before our very eyes. There is a woman in this church who died, a woman who died in this church. And by mechanical means known to science and used, she was brought back to life. And when she was brought back to life, she cried saying, "O God, just to think I have to die all over again." What is the Christian attitude toward death and dying? There are two things. Number one: without exception, the Holy Scriptures in the New Testament speak of our dying as a falling asleep in Jesus. Do you remember how the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts closes? When they are stoning Stephen to death, the last verse reads like this: "And Stephen kneeled down, and prayed, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And having prayed the prayer, he fell asleep in Jesus. He fell asleep" [Acts 7:60]. How glorious! And that is the Christian delineation and definition of dying: this body falls asleep in the Lord Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:13-15].
We have visited, many of us, the catacombs in Rome, miles and miles of those subterranean passages. Often times will I hear a minister, or an expositor, or a historian, or a Christian teacher refer to the catacombs as being hiding places for the Christians when they were persecuted. Now somebody may have hid down there, I would not deny that, but the idea is altogether different. That’s not true. Those catacombs were built, dug out, under the streets, under the great situation, the place where Rome is built, those great catacombs were dug out and built in order that the Christian might lovingly lay his dead away because the pagans burned the body, they cremated the body. But to the Christian somehow it didn’t seem right. And the Christian buried his dead lovingly and tenderly away. He carefully, prayerfully laid the body away, for it was asleep in Jesus; that is, He would come someday and awaken it, and speak life to it [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. We have a Christian word out of that: the Greek word for "sleep" is koimao, and the Greek word for "a sleeping place" is koimeterion, and when you take the Greek of koimeterion and spell it out into English, it comes out "cemetery." "Cemetery" is a Christian word, never heard of until the Christians began to use it to describe where their beloved dead were laid away. It’s a koimeterion, it’s a sleeping place; and God someday shall come and awaken these who sleep in Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18].
You know, that Christian attitude toward sleeping in the Lord is the conclusion of William Cullen Broad’s famous American poem. This is the first American poem of virtue and worth that was ever written on American soil, this one is, "Thanatopsis." Thanatos is the Greek word for "death"; opsis, "a view"; so "Thanatopsis," a view of death, a consideration of death. And he wrote this when he was about eighteen years of age. Do you remember how it closes?
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust in God, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant sleep.
Bear with me one other moment.
What is this Christian attitude toward death? One: it’s a falling asleep in Jesus. When He shall come someday and awaken these bodies, and give us a glorified body, this body glorified; not some other body, this body glorified [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]. You shall be you, and I shall be I, and all of those little idiosyncrasies and characteristics that point us out, we’ll have them just as the Lord Jesus did. Now the other: what is it that the Christian views in death? Not only a going to sleep in the Lord, but it is an arrival at our final and heavenly home. As the old-timers used to sing the old-time song,
I am a stranger here, Heaven is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heaven is my home.
Sorrows and dangers stand round me on every hand;
Heaven is my fatherland, Heaven is my home.
["I’m But a Stranger Here"; Thomas R. Taylor]
Our home is not here, it is there [John 14:2-3; Philippians 3:20; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Revelation 25:1-5]. Our reward is not here, it is there [2 Corinthians 5:10]. Our inheritance is not here, it is there [Romans 8:17; Colossians 1:12]. If you live long enough, if you live long enough, you will be alone in this world. Every member of your family, all of them gone, every friend you’ve ever known, all of them gone, and you’ll be here alone and unknown. An old man in my congregation one time died at one hundred three years of age. He had one request: he was a poor old man, he had one request, he wanted to be buried by his wife. He had so outlived every member of his family, every friend who ever knew him that no one could remember where his wife was buried. And I remember they dug his grave by the side of the fence and buried him there by himself. He wanted to be by his wife, that when the great resurrection day came, they would stand up together, stand up together. Their dust may be mingled in the heart of the earth, but he so outlived all who ever knew him they couldn’t find, nobody remembered, and he was buried alone by the side of the fence. My sweet people, it’s not here, it is there. God has prepared a place for us [John 14:2-3]. And all the riches that God has in His mighty hand to bestow upon us, they’re not here, they’re there. Therefore, when the time comes that our work is done and our task is ended, then Lord, in sweetness, and in peace, and in trust, and in infinite Christian assurance, then Lord, let me fall asleep in Jesus. That’s what it is to be a Christian.
And when we pray therefore we shall not pray, "Dear God, I cling to this other day," or, "I beg for this other year," no; we shall pray, "Dear Lord, as God shall choose best, in Thy will, let me live, let me work, let me serve. And when the task is done, and the work is finished, and my assignment is complete, then Lord, let me fall asleep in the arms of Jesus."
Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on His gentle breast,
There by His love o’er shaded, sweetly my soul shall rest.
["Safe in the Arms of Jesus"; Fanny Crosby]
This is the Christian as he prays, as he works, as he finishes life’s assignment, and as he falls asleep in the arms of our Lord.
On the first note of the first stanza, if the Holy Spirit has spoken to your heart, come and stand by me. "Today, pastor, I give my heart in faith and trust to Christ; I want to be numbered among God’s people."
"Pastor, God has placed it in our hearts to be in the fellowship of this precious congregation. My wife, my children, all of us are coming this morning." Or just a couple, or just one somebody you, while we sing this song, while we press the appeal, while our people pray and wait, on the first note of the first stanza, come. Make the decision now in your heart; and from this balcony round, down a stairway, from the press of people on this lower floor, into the aisle, "Here I am, pastor, here today. I want to be numbered among the people of God. May He write my name in His book in glory [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27], and write it here in the roll of God’s church." Do it now, come now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.