What Really Goes On Behind God’s Back

Third in a Series on Isaiah 38,
Delivered October 17, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Isaiah 38:15-22
15 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.
16 Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too.
You restored me to health and let me live.
17 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.
18 For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who
go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living–they praise you, as I am doing today; fathers tell
their children about your faithfulness.
20 The LORD will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the
days of our lives in the temple of the LORD.
21 Isaiah had said, “Prepare a poultice of figs and apply it to the boil, and he will recover.”
22 Hezekiah had asked, “What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the LORD?”

A near death experience has a way of focusing things for you and me. Take the lady who went horseback riding. Everything was going fine until the horse got out of control and began to buck, and she was thrown head first to the ground. Unfortunately her foot caught in the stirrup, and her head kept bouncing along the ground, with the horse showing no signs of stopping or even slowing down. Just when she thought all hope was lost and just before losing consciousness, the manager of WalMart came and unplugged it.

Sometimes our crises of life and death are not quite as severe as we thought at first glance.

But Hezekiah’s was. We have spent two weeks now with this great king of Judah as he has been laying on his deathbed. He was a goner. Terminally ill, until God intervened and miraculously delivered him from death. Last week we looked at the first part of a psalm that King Hezekiah composed in the wake of his healing. A psalm that was surprisingly candid, as he lays out how he was feeling as he was laying there dying. A psalm that was full of sincere beliefs about what it meant to die, and how God was involved in this. But also a psalm filled with erroneous beliefs, bad theology. And last week we learned a biblical principle of interpretation, learning to discern between what is descriptive in a Scripture text, versus what is prescriptive.

And now as we finish out our three-part sermon series on Isaiah 38, we are going to take a look at the second half of that psalm that King Hezekiah composed. This half of the psalm is filled with good, prescriptive, truthful theology. Theology that you and I can grab on to, hold onto, as we inevitably face our own crises of life and death.

I would invite you to turn in your Bibles with me, and keep them open during the sermon to the thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah’s prophesy, as we look at verses 15-22. Isaiah 38, beginning to read at the fifteenth verse, this is the word of God. Hezekiah writes:

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 boil, and he will recover.”

Hezekiah had asked, “What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the Lord?”

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

For three straight weeks now, we have been dealing with death. And lest that become too maccabe, or unless we feel too unduly weighed down by the heaviness of all that, as Christians, as followers of the One who is the death of death, you and I need to maintain some sort of sense of humor as we look death in the eye.

So take the New York city businessman who traveled to Atlanta on business, and his wife was to join him the next day. After he arrived, he figured that he would e-mail her, and let her know that he got there okay. And so he typed out an e-mail to her, but then he hit just one wrong key on the address, and the message ended up not going to his wife, but to the wife of a pastor; a pastor who had died the very day before. The pastor’s wife read the e-mail, and fell in a dead faint on the floor. Here is what the e-mail said: “Darling, just checked in. Looking forward to your arrival tomorrow. P.S. It sure is hot down here.”

There is nothing funny about King Hezekiah’s situation. Nothing funny at all. In fact, verses 21 and 22 of our text are really a flashback to remind you and me of just how serious Hezekiah’s situation was there on his death bed. In verse 21, we are told that he had a boil. And we get Isaiah’s prescription for how to heal it. Put this poultice of fig cakes on it. A boil which has lead many scholars to believe that what Hezekiah was suffering from was nothing less than bubonic plague.

And then in verse 22, we have Hezekiah asking a question of Isaiah. Asking, ‘What kind of confirmation, Isaiah, is there going to be that I am going to be healed and go up to the temple of the Lord?’ Because Isaiah has come in and said, ‘You are not going to die.’ Hezekiah wants a confirmation, and here we are transported back to that miracle that God did that reminds you and me how seriously God takes our mortality. This God of grace and unconditional love. This God who is sovereign over every molecule of the universe, in order to confirm Hezekiah’s healing, throws the whole solar system into reverse as a confirmation that Hezekiah was going to survive.

But that miracle was really pretty piddley compared to what God has done for you and me in the face of our certain demise. Done for you and me in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Your confirmation, my confirmation, our only confirmation of eternal life.

There is something about a near-death experience that is not all bad. I have had three of them that I know of. One working off shore as a roughneck on a oil rig for Texaco off the coast of Louisiana. Another when I was playing baseball in college, and I was hit square in the temple by a screaming line drive foul ball. A third time, when I was going through an intersection and a car out of control roared through the red light, and to this day I still do not understand how it missed going broadside right into me.

Near-death experiences have a way of focusing us. And we see that focusing happening in the second half of his psalm that King Hezekiah has composed. Let’s take a look at it.

Look at verse 15. Hezekiah is basically saying here that when you and I look death in the eye, it has a way of humbling us. Literally knocked off his thrown by this terminal illness Hezekiah says, ‘I am never going to climb up on my high horse again.’ You may be here this morning, and you may be rich, you might be famous, you might be powerful, but you know what? The reality of life and death is that death has a way of making a mockery of all of those things. You can be the richest man in the world, the most powerful woman on the planet earth, but what good does that do you when you are faced with your last breath.

If you are on the Titanic, it matters little if you are a baron or a busboy. Look at verse 16. Hezekiah goes on to say that when you and I look death in the eye, it has a way of doing something I have heard dozens of people tell about and I have experienced in my own life. It has a way of making you really come more alive.

I think of Jean Stuart given a ninety-five percent chance of dying a few years ago of a cancer that hardly anybody walks away from. And yet she did. And she has told me, “I am more alive now than ever. Even when I was going through that experience and not knowing whether I was going to live or die.”

I have experienced that in my own life in the wake of my own daughter’s death. If I could change that I would; and yet on the other hand, I would never want to go back to living like I did before her death, just skimming along the surface of life.

Death has a way of making us actually come alive. When we begin to realize that life is fragile and yet so precious; that every single day is a spectacular gift of God to you and me; that we can’t really take anything for granted. Come alive, that is what a near-death experience can do for you and me.

We see it happening here to Hezekiah. If you look at verses 18, 19, and 20, we realize that what Hezekiah has done is that he has discovered the sharp contrast between death and life. In verse 18, he discovers the core of what it really means to be alive, and that is to give praise to God. In verse 19, it says that he has discovered what is truly important in passing on to our children. And that is the faithfulness of God that we have experienced. And in verse 20, Hezekiah discovers what the apex of being human is really all about. Going into the house of the Lord, and giving him praise and singing his praises.

You know what makes an alive congregation? Not contemporary worship, or a preacher, or traditional worship. What makes a congregation alive is that it is filled with men and women, boys and girls, who have discovered what Hezekiah discovered: that we need a savior. We need a Savior.

That is what Hezekiah has discovered. And then in verse 17, he reveals another discovery to us. That he has found himself running headlong into the redemptive, gracious power of Almighty God. The realization that when tragedies, and disappointments, and crises of various sorts smash into our lives, they are not caused by God, but God is at work redeeming them. Entering into them. Transforming them for our ultimate benefit.

I have talked to people, maybe you have too, who had said things like, ‘I thank God that I have been diagnosed as terminally ill.’ And they go on to say, ‘Because before then, I was cruising along and I didn’t give God a thought. But now that I am faced with my own mortality, I have surrendered my life to Jesus Christ, and I thank God. I don’t think he has caused this, but he has redeemed it and brought me to himself through it.’ Is that where you are?

God is a redeeming God. We have to stop at this point, though, and we need to learn another principle of Biblical interpretation. This one is my own personal, kind of fun way of dealing with Scripture. And yet I have found that it always takes me right to the heart of the gospel. And here is the principle: When you are looking at a text of scripture, any text, Old Testament, New Testament, scan the text and then look for what I call the “bump” or the “twist” of grace.

I believe that grace as personified in Jesus Christ himself, grace is the central message, the chief subject, the very center of Scripture; and that God has tucked into each text this bump, this twist of grace. Do you see it in this text before us?

As I drove through this text earlier this week, I was going along and all of the sudden unexpectedly I hit the bump. I drove on out to the end of the text, then I put it in reverse, and I backed my way through the text, and low and behold there it was in the exact same spot again. Do you see the twist? Do you see the bump of grace in this text? It is there in the end of verse 17, where Hezekiah writes, “You have put all my sins behind your back.” That caught my attention. The twist of grace, the bump usually is a word, a phrase, a word picture that jars me, that confounds me, that stumps me, that sometimes grates against me. Sometimes makes me laugh, but I am always looking for that bump, and here it was here. “He has put my sins behind his back.”

I went to the Hebrew. The literal Hebrew is, “He throws all my sins behind his back.” Sort of a Michael Jordan move here, although the spectacular move that God makes in Jesus Christ in throwing our sin behind his back makes Michael Jordan look more like Larry, Moe, or Curly by comparison.

The twist of grace is that he throws our sins, all of our sins behind his back. Now before you can really understand, or before I can really understand what that means, you and I have to come to grips with a question. Before we can ever really comprehend what grace is all about, we have got to figure out the answer to this question in the right way. The question is this: Is human nature essentially good or bad?

What does our culture tell us? We are basically good. That feels so good doesn’t’ it? We want to think of ourselves as good people. But as long as you and I harbor the idea that human nature is essentially good, then it leaves the door open; then there is a great ray of hope that comes shining into our lives; hope that if we just gut it out, and try a little bit harder, and clean up our lives a little bit more, then maybe just maybe, we can make it to heaven on our own.

A theologian that I respect very much is a man named Ron Sider. He teaches at Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the director of Evangelicals for Social Action, of which I am a member. He is the author of a book entitled, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, that has probably impacted my life more than any other book other than the Scriptures themselves. In the latest issues of Renews, which is the journal of the Presbyterians For Renewal, of which I am and Central are a part, they interview Ron Sider.

Here is one of the questions in the interview, “Do you think people are basically good?’ Here is Sider’s response, “No. Anybody who starts with a biblical view of human nature isn’t surprised when people go on being sinful. The utterly astonishing thing to me is the naivety of liberal optimism throughout this century. Reinhold Niebuhr said a long time ago that the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable is original sin. How anyone could live through a major part of the twentieth century and continue to suppose that people are basically good, is way beyond me.”

You see friends, your sin, my sin, has created a life and death crisis in our lives. A crisis far more grave than Hezekiah’s bubonic plague, because this crisis leaves you and me in great peril of eternal death. Utter complete separation from God for eternity. In other words, hell. But on his deathbed, King Hezekiah discovers the gracious gateway to life both temporal and eternal, a gateway called forgiveness. And there is something that Hezekiah did not know that you and I can know. That is that Jesus Christ, and He alone is that gate. Jesus Christ is grace. Jesus Christ is forgiveness.

There is an old cemetery outside of New York City, and in that cemetery is a tombstone. It is a rather unusual tombstone because there is no name on it. In fact, there are no dates of birth and death on it. There is only one word carved into that tombstone. The word “FORGIVEN.” Think about it: when you are dead and when I am dead, that is the only word that really matters isn’t it? And what we have here, this twist, this bump of grace in verse 17 is a reminder that no matter how grievous our sins, no matter how numerous our sins, when we are convicted by God’s Holy Spirit of our sin and repent, which means simply to turn around and lay our sins, confess them before Jesus Christ, then you know what God the Father does? He does an unbelievable behind the back move, and throws our sins away. And to borrow another biblical metaphor, he throws them behind his back into the utter depths of the sea, and then he puts up a “no fishing” sign.

A bible translator was working with an Eskimo tribe, and trying to translate the scriptures into their dialect, and he could not come up with a word for “forgiven.” The Eskimos finally came up with the word for him. Here it is, “issumagijoujingnainirmik”. It means not being able to think about it again.

When God does this unbelievable behind that back casting down of our sins, that means he does not revisit them. It means that he will not demand penalty for them. It means that he will not ever even remember them. It means that he will not hold them in reserve to throw back in our faces at a convenient time.

When God pulls that unbelievable, (and grace is always unbelievable) that unbelievable move of throwing our sins, all of them behind his back, that means you and I can walk free of any judgment or condemnation. He throws them behind his back. Why then do you and I play around behind God’s back, and continually dig them up and throw them in our own faces? Why do we do that?

The late Carl Menninger, psychiatrist, a Presbyterian, said that he was convinced that if he could convince psychiatric hospital patients that their sins were forgiven, seventy-five percent of them could walk out the next day.

Friends, I don’t believe that you and I are Christians until we have reached the point that King Hezekiah reached. Oh maybe not on our literal deathbeds, but reach the point that he reached in recognizing that outside of an intervention by a gracious loving God, the only thing that you and I are good for is as good as dead, eternally dead. That is bad news, isn’t it?

Listen to the good news. There is a Savior. Listen to the better news, that Savior is here this morning. You want even better news than that? He loves you unconditionally. I don’t care who you are, or what you have done, how much of what you have done. He is a God to whom you and I can go to, bring the entirety of our lives and our deaths, and place them in his hands knowing that he will never ever fumble. We can bring all of our sin to him in Christ Jesus, and then when we do, we get to watch God the Father do that unbelievable spectacular move where he takes those sins and throws them behind his back. And then you and I can walk forward into real life, even on into eternal life. Praise be to God.

What Hezekiah has done here through this near-death experiences, is really abandon himself into the hands of God. That is what a Christian does. That is what a Christian is. Are you holding back? You may call yourself a Christian, you may believe every clause in the Apostle’s Creed. But being a Christian means you have abandoned yourself totally into the hands of God.

Let me close with a prayer. It is not my own. It is written by a man named Charles de Foucauld. It is entitled, The Prayer of Abandonment. I would invite you this morning to abandon yourself into the hands of a gracious, loving Almighty God, and make these words our words as we pray.

Father I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will. Whatever you will do, I will thank you. Let only your will be done in me, as in all your creatures. And I will ask nothing else my Lord. Into your hands I commend my spirit. I give it to you with all the love of my heart for I love you Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, with a trust beyond all measure because you are my Father. Amen.